Monday, August 29, 2016

"Muscle Training Illustrated" Names Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir as its Man of the Year for 1991

In the wake of the first Gulf War, the summer of 1991 was a period of dramatic changes and challenges, as shown in our post on the attempted coup in the USSR. But the ISA files also contain moments of light relief, such as these press cuttings accompanying a message from the consulate general in New York, telling Yitzhak Shamir's press adviser that the American bodybuilders' magazine "Muscle Training Illustrated' had chosen the diminutive and physically unimpressive prime minister as its Man of the Year.

During the Gulf War Iraq attacked Israel with Scud missiles, which caused serious damage and aroused fears that Israel's ability to deter its enemies would be undermined. Shamir was under great pressure to retaliate, but he knew that military steps against Iraq might lead to the break up of the coalition against Saddam Hussein built by the United States with the moderate Arab states. Shamir's policy of restraint aroused great admiration all over the world. 
Crater caused by a Scud missile which landed in SouthTel Aviv, 19 January 1991
Photograph: Nathan Alpert, Government Press Office

This admiration was also expressed in the award given to Shamir in August 1991, by Dan Lurie, the Jewish publisher of the magazine, and a champion bodybuilder himself. And even Shamir had his moments as a sportsman, as shown by this photograph from a visit to a sports club in 1988. 
Maggi Ayalon, Government Press Office

Sunday, August 21, 2016

James Baker to Yitzhak Shamir, August 1991: Too Much is at Stake to Allow the Attempted Coup in Russia to Disrupt the Peace Process

This message from US Secretary of State Baker was delivered to Israeli Prime Minister Shamir on 20 August 1991, at the height of the crisis in the Soviet Union. At that moment  no-one knew whether President Mikhail Gorbachev was alive or dead, and whether the attempted coup by Communist hard-liners would succeed. 25 years later we know that the coup's failure led to the fall of the regime and the rapid breakup of the Soviet Union.

Russian President Boris Yeltsin, the leader of the opposition to the coup, next to a tank in Moscow

1991 was also a fateful year for the Middle East. A short time before, at the end of July, Gorbachev and President George H. W. Bush had met in Moscow to sign a historic agreement on arms limitation. They also announced that the USA and the USSR would issue invitations to an international peace conference on the Middle East in October 1991. Soviet Foreign Minister Bessmertnykh announced that the USSR would offer Israel the restoration of full diplomatic relations if it agreed to come to the conference.

But Shamir still hesitated. Israeli governments had regarded peace conferences with suspicion since the failure of the 1949 Lausanne conference. They feared that Israel would be isolated and that the Arab states would be forced to line up with extreme positions. However, after the Yom Kippur war Israel agreed to take part in the Geneva conference after receiving assurances from the Americans that they would support its stand, and the conference would serve as no more than a backdrop for bilateral negotiations. The Geneva conference met on 21 December 1973, and after the opening session it was suspended and never met again.

Since the end of the first Gulf War on 28 February 1991, the US Administration was determined to bring about peace talks between Israel and the Arabs, including the Palestinians. After the defeat of Saddam Hussein, US prestige was at its height, and the Administration wanted to fulfil promises made to its Arab allies, especially Egypt, Syria and Saudi Arabia, to renew the negotiations with Israel. The Americans accepted Israel's proposal for a two track process – bilateral talks with the Palestinians, and direct talks with the Arab states as Israel wanted, and proposed the framework of an international conference. PLO influence was greatly weakened by its support for Saddam Hussein, and the Americans believed they could get it to acquiesce in a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation, to include residents of the West Bank and Gaza acceptable to Israel.

Israel accepted this plan, but did not expect it would succeed. However, on 14 July 1991 Hafez-al Assad agreed that Syria would take part in the conference. The pressure on Shamir was building up. After the Moscow summit the Americans offered Israel another sweetener – revocation of UN Resolution  3379, which had declared Zionism a form of racism, in order to answer its objections to UN involvement in the conference. Baker telephoned Shamir and promised a US initiative to revoke the resolution.  After Baker arrived on Jerusalem and promised more assurances Shamir agreed on 1 August that Israel would come to the conference, subject to an agreed formula on Palestinian representation.

Shamir and Baker shake hands after announcing Israel's agreement, 1 August 1991
Photograph: Nathan Alpert. Government Press Office

On 4 August Baker met with Shamir, Foreign Minister David Levy and Defence Minister Moshe Arens in Jerusalem. Shamir, under pressure from Likud members led by Ariel Sharon who opposed the conference, wanted to bring the understandings to the government. Baker repeated his assurances, although he also said that the US would not retract from the policy it had laid down in the past on issues such as settlements.

The government approved the proposals. Now the ball was in the Palestinians' court. While efforts continued to persuade them to form a delegation acceptable to Israel, the crisis in Moscow came to a head. Baker hastened to send Shamir a message through the US ambassador to assure him "of the President's and my determination" to keep on working for the goal of peace. "Too much is at stake to allow the progress we have achieved to dissipate."

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Israel and Guinea Renew Diplomatic Relations after 49 Years: Foreign Ministry Documents on the Breaking of Relations, 5 June 1967

Yesterday, 20 July 2016, the renewal of Israel's diplomatic relations with the West African state of Guinea was announced, 49 years after they were cut off. In the Foreign Ministry files at the Archives we have some interesting documents describing how Guinea severed its relations with Israel on 5 June 1967, the first day of the Six Day War.

Nahum Gershom, the ambassador in Conakry, the capital of Guinea, reported on 27 May to the African Division of the Foreign Ministry  during the "waiting period" of tension following Egypt's closing of the straits of Tiran, that President Ahmed Sékou Touré  had sent a letter of support to the Egyptian leader, Gamal Abdel Nasser. However the ambassador had managed to see the secretary-general of the foreign ministry and explained Israel's case to him, also giving him the document in French shown below, and there was much sympathy for Israel among the people.

Nevertheless Gershom was not surprised when, at 12:30 on 5 June, he was summoned to the Foreign Ministry and told that relations would be severed and all the Israeli representatives, including agricultural advisers, must leave at once. Gershom wrote that as soon as he heard that war had broken out, he assumed that this step would follow. Nasser had sent telegrams to all the African states friendly to Egypt, asking them to cut off relations with Israel, and the Guinea radio station had begun to broadcast military music. These events are described in another letter to the African Division. You can see Gershom's letters on our Hebrew blog.

Even before this Israel's relations with mainly Muslim Guinea were deteriorating, as the Guineans had adopted a strongly anti-Israel line including condemnations at the UN and international conferences, and anti-Israel publications in the local media.  Israel established diplomatic relations with Guinea in 195, immediately after it received independence from France. But relations with the new state were always problematic, due to the pro-Soviet line and dictatorial methods of its leader  Sékou Touré, one of the prominent leaders of the first generation of emerging African states.  

Ahmed Sekou Toure, Wikipedia

Guinea was the only African state to break off relations with Israel after the Six Day war. Burundi and Mali suspended their ties but did not break off relations. However most of the African states did so in 1972 and 1973. Many of them resumed relations with Israel in the 1980s after the peace treaty with Egypt. 

 .Nations Online Project, map of Guinea

Thursday, July 7, 2016

How Idi Amin Personally Threatened Israel Over the American Movie "Victory at Entebbe"

The operation to liberate the Jewish hostages at Entebbe in Uganda on July 4, 1976 stunned the world and captured the imagination of creators of many--writers, newspapermen, and of course movie producers. For good reason: Operation Jonathan, as it would become known in Israel, had all the makings of a first rate action movie--terrorists hijack an aircraft to a distant land, a tyrannical ruler assists them, and a daring commando unit releases them while its commander falls during the rescue. Unsurprisingly, immediately after the dust had settled on "Operation Jonathan," different producers in Israel and abroad sought to make a movie about it.

They acted with great speed. Less than six months after the operation, in the middle of December 1976, the television movie Victory at Entebbe premiered, featuring famous Hollywood stars such as Kirk Douglas, Richard Dreyfuss, Burt Lancaster, Anthony Hopkins, Elizabeth Taylor, and others.

Different adaptations of Entebbe portrayed the operation in different ways but they all had one thing in common: the "bad guy" (in addition to the German and Arab hijackers) was the leader of Uganda, Idi Amin Dada, who was known for his brutal repression of his political opponents. It is no wonder, then, that "Victory at Entebbe" evoked the wrath of Amin.

In December 1976, he sent a telegram to Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and protested his and Uganda's depiction as accomplices in the hijacking. The ruler of Uganda repeated his claim that he acted to save the hostages while Israel abused his "hospitality" and sent troops "purposely to destroy lives of innocent people." Evidence proved, however, that Amin and his army were accomplices (as can be seen in the Foreign Ministry documents we published on our Hebrew blog). The wording of Amin's telegram was undiplomatic and included veiled threats: "Those who are now rejoicing will one day suffer and some of them will come and kneel before me for mercy and will write a different story about their fate." All this was dictated by Amin himself.

Idi Amin (Wikipedia)
Two more movies were produced on Operation Jonathan: a television movie named Raid on Entebbe in January 1977 (with Charles Bronson as Dan Shomron) and later that year an Israeli feature movie named "Mivtsa Yonatan" (Operation Jonathan). Its cast included some of the most famous names in Israeli film and entertainment of that time: the singer Yehoram Gaon as Yoni Netanyahu, the singer Arik Lavie as Dan Shomron, and actors such as Shaike Ophir, Gila Almagor, Shmuel Rodensky and many others.

N.B: The operation to rescue the hostages in Entebbe was originally code-named "Operation Thunderbolt." It was actually a Hebrew translation of the name of the 1965 James Bond movie "Thunderball." This was the name the IDF computer came up when Dan Shomron, the commander of the operation looked for a good code name. Following the success of the operation, the Israeli government decided to change the name to "Operation Jonathan" in memory of Lt. Col. Yehonatan Netanyahu. In the rest of the world, it's widely known as "Operation Entebbe."

Monday, July 4, 2016

Leo Lessman Fights in the Battle of the Somme – The Centenary of the WWI Battles of Verdun and the Somme

On July 1, Britain marked the centenary of one of the traumatic events in its history, the Battle of the Somme. Here we present some more photographs from Leo Lessman's war diary, showing scenes from the German side of the battle.

This year marks the centenary of two of the greatest battles of the First World War, the Battle of Verdun (February - December 1916), and the battle on the river Somme (July - November 1916). The battle of the Somme is regarded as one of the bloodiest in world history. The importance of these battles goes beyond military history--they profoundly influenced the warring countries: Germany, France and Britain. The continuing struggle and terrible losses undercut the foundations of society in these states, which were never the same afterwards.

At Verdun, the Germans planned to draw the French into battle for a position which they would feel compelled to defend at all costs. Verdun was such a position. A fortress city since the Roman period, it was the last French position to surrender in the 1870/71 Franco-Prussian war and was a source of pride for the French in their defeat. The chief of staff of the German army, Erich von Falkenhayn (of which we have written before) believed that the French would not cede Verdun and it was a chance to "bleed the French white." He planned a series of limited attacks on positions on the perimeter of Verdun, which would draw the French to concentrate forces and fight for them. Falkenhayn planned to concentrate massive numbers of artillery and butcher the French, forcing them to retreat and even stop fighting.

The offensive opened on February 21st and was a success at first. The Germans took some key positions. Just as they hoped, the French decided to fight and defend Verdun. They moved large number of troops to the Verdun front, and rotated units every 2 weeks, to lessen the attrition in battle. They also massed their own artillery and showed the Germans that they could inflict heavy losses. In the end, the French recaptured all the land taken by the Germans, but at a terrible cost – it is estimated that both sides lost between 714,000 to 972,000 troops – killed, wounded and missing.

The Allied Somme river offensive was planned in December 1915 as the great offensive of the year against Germany. The German offensive in Verdun made the battle even more important – as a means to draw Germans forces away and to aid a great Russian offensive (the "Brusilov offensive" June – September 1916). Verdun changed the planning – the French could not lead the attack and the British were now the main force with French support. The British army was now a large volunteer army, made up of men who had answered Field Marshal Horatio Herbert Kitchener's call for "100,000 volunteers". 2.5 million men answered the call. "Kitchener's army" had all the enthusiasm and patriotism in the world, but it lacked sound training and experience (most of those who could have trained them better, the professional army, were either dead, wounded or prisoner).
World War I recruitment poster featuring Lord Kitchener/Wikipedia

On 0730, July 1st 1916, after a weeklong bombardment, the British soldiers "went over the top" – climbed out of the trenches, formed groups and started advancing towards the German lines. The British commanders told their troops that the heavy artillery had demolished the German lines, and that all they had to do is cross "no-man's land" and take the German lines.  This was not true. British patrols and raids mounted during lulls in the bombardment found that German barbed wire was intact and that many German units were well dug in. This information was not received by British high command.  The German soldiers were protected in underground bomb shelters and were mostly unscathed by the heavy fire.

As the assault commenced, the German troops ran to their positions and opened fire on the oncoming British troops. The concentration of the British soldiers in large groups made the slaughter all too great – 57,000 casualties, 21,000 of them killed. It was the largest number of casualties for a single day of fighting in the history of the British.  The British catastrophe was larger than statistics can show.   The British units were "Pals battalions" – whole units recruited from the same geographic area, from cities and villages. Friends, neighbors, co-workers all volunteered together – and were killed together. In one morning, thousands of women were bereaved. The losses crossed all social boundaries.

 The battle did not end after one day. The British resumed their attacks, and the Germans counter attacked. The German Army commander on the Somme, Fritz von Below ordered his troops:" the vital thing is to hold on to our positions at all costs…The enemy should have to carve its way over heaps of corpses". The battle raged all summer. The thunder of guns was heard as far away as London. In September the British introduced a new weapon – the tank, but it did not achieve the break through expected.

The battle ended by November. The British forces conquered an area in the depth of 10 kilometers in the German lines. The cost was terrible – 600-700,000 casualties (150,000 killed) for the British and French, 450, 000 Germans (164, 000 killed).

According to his diary, Leo Lessman fought in the Battle of the Somme (Somme-Schlacht). His unit was stationed by Bapaume, a town in northern France, just outside of the area the British were planning to attack. Lessman's 103 Field Artillery regiment provided close cover fire to the German front line forces, who were trying to stop the British. The album does not show photos of the battlefield but Lessman took many pictures of Bapaume, which was badly hit during the battle (here are more photos of the damage in Bapaume from the Bundesarchiv/Wikicommons).
 The Germans retreated from Bapaum in March 1917, when the German army conducted a strategic retreat to a new, heavily fortified line that was supposed to spare them another Somme blood bath. A year later, in March 1918 during the great German Spring offensive, the Germans retook Bapaume. It was finally liberated by Australian troops in September 1918. (Bapaume has a Chemin des Anzacs since).
A hotel in Bapaume, damaged in a bombardment

Townhall of Bapaume, damaged in a bombardment
Hospital road in Bapaume
A German observation balloon, near Bapaume

 A street concert in Vaulx, probably in the vicinity of Bapaume
Infantry reinforcements on the way to the front, Vaulx (near Bapaume)

Ruins of what was the village Serra (west of Bapaume). The village changed hands several times and was totally destroyed 

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Mazal Tov: A New Book on Golda Meir, Hot Off the Press

We've written here many times about Golda Meir, Israel's fourth prime minister, in posts based on the ISA's forthcoming commemorative volume on her life. We're happy to announce that the book (in Hebrew)  has finally been published and is available from the Archives.

Last week the book was launched by its editor, Dr. Hagai Tsoref, at the Association of Israel Studies conference in Jerusalem. Dr. Tsoref presented Golda's achievements in setting up the welfare state in Israel and the controversy over her role in the Yom Kippur war. But the hottest debate at the session focused on new research by Professor Pnina Lahav of Boston University on gender issues: male attitudes towards Golda as a female leader and whether she was a feminist.

 Golda's stand on these issues displays the duality in her character also found in her attitude towards peace with the Arabs and the social gap between the established classes and poor Mizrachi immigrants. On the one hand she was an "Iron Lady", and on the other a sentimental grandmother. She first came to prominence as an activist in the Council of Women Workers of the Histadrut, the General Federation of Labour in Palestine. As one of its joint secretaries, she supported setting up crèches for working mothers in the cities as well as training and financial help  for female workers in agricultural settlements, as you can see in this letter which we found in the Lavon Institute Archives.

In 1931 she came to New York, and raised money for these causes while heading the Pioneer Women's organization. Throughout her life she was deeply concerned with social justice and helping poor families and she frequently quarrelled with economic experts who failed to see the human beings behind the numbers of unemployed or those without a roof over their head.

After her return from the US, Golda moved from women's organizations to the national stage and held important positions in the Histadrut, serving as the head of the Political Department from 1941. Her connections with the Labor movement in the US, her command of English and speaking skills helped her to advance to the leadership, together with her determination and devotion to the cause. In 1946, when the British arrested  the heads of the Jewish Agency political department, Moshe Shertok (Sharett) and Bernard (Dov) Joseph, Golda as a woman was spared and took their place.

Golda's path to power was also smoothed by her association with powerful men, such as  Zalman Shazar, one of the editors of the "Davar" newspaper, and especially with her mentor and lover David Remez, secretary-general of the Labour Federation in the 1930s and later a government minister.

As Minister of Labour between 1949 and 1956 Golda did little or nothing to promote women to positions of influence. It seems that she distanced herself from any identification with women's issues and felt it was not possible to promote special solutions for employing women who could not be sent to labour on public works, like so many of the immigrants

 Professor Lahav showed that her appointment as Foreign Minister in 1956 was met with derision from a journalist who did not believe that a woman could fill this post. But most observers believed that she was chosen instead of Moshe Sharett mainly because Ben-Gurion saw her as a loyal lieutenant and fellow hardliner. Sharett himself (who had deliberately given preference to women in the Foreign Service) wrote bitterly in his "Personal Diary" about her agreement to replace him, which he regarded as a stab in the back from a party colleague, and 
added that she was unfit for the post, not because of her gender, but because of her lack of formal education.

Golda became Prime Minister in 1969 when she was already 71 years old, and in poor health. She ruled her cabinet with a rod of iron, but was often presented as a homely figure, holding important consultations in her kitchen and shopping for arms in the US with her capacious handbag and sensible "Golda" shoes.
"!At last, a man as the Prime Minister''
Caricature by Yosef Bass, 14 November 1969

Golda Meir and President Nixon in Washington, 1 March 1973
Photograph: Moshe Milner, Government Press Office

Like many of Israel's prime ministers, the end of her career was a tragic one, and she was forced to resign in the aftermath of the Yom Kippur war. The documents in the book show Golda's strength and determination during the war, but afterwards she blamed herself for listening to her generals, and not overruling them to order full mobilization of the reserves when warnings of a possible Arab attack arrived. On 10 April 1974 Golda resigned after the publication of the Agranat Report. But she stayed on to complete the 
separation of forces agreement with Syria about which we have already written here. Frightening reports were circulating about the Syrians' treatment of the Israeli POWs, 
including rumours about torture and murder of some of them.  Golda refused to open negotiations with Syria until the Red Cross had visited the prisoners. 

 Here we see the message she sent to Sadat (and through him to Hafez al-Assad) 
on this issue. 
Golda's last act as prime minister was the signing of the agreement which brought 
the POWs back to Israel.
If you would like to order the book, please contact

Friday, June 10, 2016

Scanning archival files appears feasable

At the beginning of April our new website went online, and promptly ran into snags hitches and impediments, as we noted at the time. Various folks were unhappy with us, though mostly unjustified, we feel.

In the meantime some two months have happened. Some parts of the operation are working better, others we're still working on. It's going to take at least a few more weeks to reach the point we hoped to be at in mid-April, and, truth be told, we still have many months of necessary development ahead of us (including some simple fixes that will make the English part work better). Putting the archives online is not a small event nor is it simple.

One thing we've been a bit worried by for the past four years, ever since we launched our industrial-scale scanning project, was about the quality of the scans. We're allocating a sizable chuck of our budget to this; we're scanning 75,000 pages a day give or take 30,000; there are about 70 people working on the process - and what if the quality of the scans isn't up to par? That would be sad.

Well, over the past two months we estimate people have seen thousands of scanned files, well over 100,000 scanned pages - and so far, there have been two complaints pertaining to the quality of the scans which have reached me. Upon investigation, both turned out to be of faded old documents where the scanner picked up the same illegible quality the human eye sees.

So far as we can tell at this stage, color scanning of documents can be done efficiently and also effectively. Which is an important thing to know.