Israel's battle against wayward right-wing rabbis summons up a recollection of the fledgling Israeli government's handling of the Altalena affair.
By Amir Oren
The Altalena's heavy burden
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is also toadying to the extreme right on the issue of the Altalena, the right-wing Irgun militia's weapons ship that was sunk by the new Israeli government in 1948. The Prime Minister's Office and the Menachem Begin Heritage Center are expected to carry out an underwater search for remnants of the vessel in the coming weeks. The context is encouragement from above of rebels against the state, with the aim to thwart a diplomatic solution that would involve the evacuation of settlements.
Netanyahu has yet to evacuate a single settler. In 1997 he fulfilled his predecessor's commitment to evacuate Hebron in the sense that he divided the city. But he did not remove the settlers. In 2005 he resigned from Ariel Sharon's government so as not to be a partner to evacuation of settlements in Gaza and the northern West Bank.
When there is peace, there is no sign that he will have the courage to carry out what he has undertaken - uprooting settlers who refuse to leave of their own free will. In Netanyahu's world, in the choice between a quarrel with the world and a struggle with the extreme right, which influences Likud's internal elections, U.S. President Barack Obama doesn't stand a chance against Lior and right-wing Likud firebrand Moshe Feiglin.
It's worth recalling what David Ben-Gurion said about the Altalena. On the day of the battle, Ben-Gurion was absolutely determined to overpower the ship. "All those who fell in Kfar Vitkin and its surroundings [the site of an earlier clash between the army and the Irgun] will be buried in that area," he ordered Yigael Yadin, who would become the Israel Defense Forces' second chief of staff. "By no means is the Irgun to be allowed to have its dead buried in Tel Aviv."
Ben-Gurion had no compunctions about making clear the means to be employed in Tel Aviv. "You must," he wrote to Yadin, "take every step: concentrating an army, firepower (cannons, machine guns ), flame-throwers and all the other means at our disposal to make the ship surrender unconditionally. All these forces will be put into action - if the government gives an order."
The following day, June 23, 1948, at the fifth meeting of the Provisional State Council, he spoke about "the attempted attack by the organization known as the Irgun on the unity and sovereignty of the state, the State of Israel's military capability and its international status." He used terms such as "the bitterest test of blood the state has faced" and "a gang of terrorists."
"Had the weapons fallen into their hands, the terrorists would have been able to do away with the state all at once .... The burning of this ship [is] a tremendous thing because this is a ship that carried a danger of destruction for Israel .... The army acted intelligently. It could have destroyed those gangs, and did not do this because it knew that destroying them was not the aim but rather the prevention of a crime. I am very afraid of an armed minority," he added.
"To what end is it armed? Weaponry - this is a means for killing people. When there is an armed minority, it is inevitable that blood will be spilled, and Jewish blood has been spilled by them - more than once! And there is a danger that non-Jewish blood will be spilled by them - and non-Jewish blood must also not be spilled. We must prevent this danger, and it is impossible to prevent it with kid gloves, but rather only by force."
Ben-Gurion continued: "Alas, we must use force against Jews, but 70 times alas, Jews are compelling us to use force against them. In keeping the arms ship from the Irgun, a terrible disaster looming over us has been prevented, and never has the burning of a ship been such a devoted mission for the peace of the Yishuv [Jewish community] as the burning of this Irgun ship.
The Irgun people are in the army, but at the same time they have special weapons. For what? Against Arabs? After all, they have weapons from the government, clearly then, for continuing the internal terror. When there is not a sole authority, a sole army ... a sole discipline, when every terrorist gang can openly do what the Irgun people have done, the war effort is endangered ....
"The government did not succumb to erroneous pity, which might have led to far more horrendous bloodshed than what there was now. It's better that the ship was burned than for it to have supplied private arms to the separatists. In the government's hands the arms could have been a blessing, but they refused to hand them over to the government, so it's better the arms drowned in the sea or were burned."
And in a foreshadowing of future events, Ben-Gurion added, "We do not want to go around the country accompanied by bodyguards. I am embarrassed by bodyguards, and I know that a bodyguard will not help. If someone wants to assassinate you, he will assassinate you."
The intelligence service of the Haganah - the pre-state underground militia associated with the labor movement - had moles in the Irgun leadership. According to reliable testimonies, at least one became a top man in the right-wing Herut party and reported to the Shin Bet security service until the mid-1950s.
Three weeks after the Altalena affair, Ben-Gurion wrote to Interior Minister Yitzhak Greenboim: "According to the reports I have received, the Irgun was planning, with the help of wealthy people in the Yishuv, to establish 'an army of 5,000 people.' The aims: 1. Occupation of part of the land (Jerusalem or some other place ) under its total authority, and to defend this occupation against both aliens and Jews. 2. Preparations for achieving rule in the entire State of Israel by force. The loss of the ship the Altalena thwarted its plans, but after hesitations and wavering it now intends to continue with its previous plan, though by other means. It is now planning: 1. The occupation of Jerusalem, or at least separate occupations of Jerusalem. 2. The establishment of a large front abroad. To this end it is sending its most gifted commanders there, who will set up an army there to operate at the opportune moment here. 3. The acquisition of arms aboard and arrangement of hidden storehouses here."
Israel has witnessed the Jewish underground in the territories, Baruch Goldstein - who committed the Hebron massacre in 1994 - and Yigal Amir - who assassinated Rabin the following year. All of them were graduates of select units in the IDF. We must not take lightly the ability of national religious leaders to deploy their people at the next major evacuation.
Affairs like those of rabbis Dov Lior and Ya'akov Yosef test the determination of both sides. The politicians, headed by Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak (who dozens of times promised in vain, in the name of law and order, to evacuate rogue outposts ), have been deterred. The Israel Police, with the support of the State Prosecutor's Office, finds itself fighting alone.