Thursday, January 31, 2008

On the Altalena

The untreated question

Sir, - David Forman's history of the Altalena affair was a bit off the mark ("Israel's fifth column," UpFront, January 18). His chronology was skimpy, misleading and ignored certain elements.

Already on May 15, after midnight, Menachem Begin informed Yisrael Galili, of the new Defense Ministry, of the existence of the ship Altalena and even suggested that the Hagana purchase it. On May 17, Mossad agent Z. Schind informed Galili that they had been aware of the ship's existence for some time and suspected the British knew of its existence. The chain of events as described by Forman implied that David Ben-Gurion was surprised only on June 11; which was not the case.

But, more important, Forman wrote that "Begin refused to respond to the ultimatum, making a clash inevitable; whereupon Ben-Gurion issued the order to open fire on the Altalena."

It would be more correct to have written that faced with an ultimatum which contradicted the terms of the agreement Begin had concluded with Galili to land the boat at Kfar Vitkin, Begin sought to communicate with Ben-Gurion. IDF troops then opened fire at Kfar Vitkin beach, killing two Irgun men, whereupon the Altalena upped anchor and set sail for Tel Aviv. There, Palmah men opened murderous fire on the ship and at men swimming in the water.

Fourteen more Irgun men were killed at that location by small-arms fire. Ben-Gurion then ordered a cannon to fire on the Altalena, even though Begin had withheld return fire from the boat.

In writing "While there is much debate as to whether the confrontation could have been avoided," Forman avoided the main question: If Begin initiated informing the new government about the ship; had agreed to a major compromise over the distribution of the weapons; had agreed to land at Kfar Vitkin, a Mapai moshav, and almost 90 percent of the arrivals had disembarked and already set off for Netanya - why did Ben-Gurion need to use military force, seeing Begin had proved that, in deliberations, he was willing to seek national unity?

Could it have been that he was seeking to destroy Begin and the Irgun as a political force, or even eliminate Begin altogether?