Sunday, December 28, 2014

How Unique Was Israel Granting Asylum to Political Escapees in South Africa? Very.

Six months ago, we published on the Israel State Archives site and on this blog a collection of documents covering the relations between Israel and South Africa. As noted then, while collecting and researching the different documents, we came upon an interesting letter, sent by the Director General of Israel's Foreign Ministry, Dr. Chaim Yahil. In the letter, Yahil allows the legation in Pretoria to give asylum to political escapees, without prior authorization by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The Israel State Archives employs former diplomats from Israel's Foreign Ministry. When we showed them this document, we were told that it is quite extraordinary, since this kind of authorization allowing a fugitive into an Israeli diplomatic mission is unprecedented.

We have found reinforcement of the uniqueness of Yahil's directive in another document, discovered while preparing the next project in our series of publications concerning Israel's relations with Africa during the 60's. In this document, we found that a previous request to provide political asylum in Israeli missions elsewhere had been rejected.

The request was made in a letter written by Israel's consul-general in Lisbon, Levy Alon, to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. We didn't find the original letter of Alon, but rather the response from his superiors, who categorically rejected his proposal. Because we lack his original request, we aren't entirely sure of Alon's intentions. Did he expect political opponents of the authoritarian government in Portugal to try and escape into the premises of Israel's consulate in Lisbon?

In any case, as we noted above, this letter rejecting Alon's proposal underscores the uniqueness of the relatively free hand given to the legation in South Africa, and the level of political risk Israel took on itself in allowing asylum there.

Here is the translation of the letter:
Jerusalem, October 15th, 1963

To: Consul-General, Lisbon
From: Deputy Director, West European Division
Subject: [right] of sanctuary in the mission
Your letter no. 103.1/6922 from July 22nd.

We passed the matter for clarification by the [Foreign Ministry's] senior staff, which decided to produce a standing order for Israel's diplomatic missions, in which it is stated that no political asylum should be allowed in any circumstances. This rule applies also to Jews. It is possible that in some extraordinary cases asylum will be permitted, pending on prior approval of the Ministry's senior staff. This is a summary of the order, and you will receive the full and accurate wording in a general circular that will be sent to all missions.

Therefore, your initiative served all [in the ministry].
Yours truly,
Nissim Yaish

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

A Missed Opportunity for Peace? Begin and Sadat Meet at Ismailia, 25 December 1977

 This week, when the Christian world celebrates Christmas, is also the anniversary of the second meeting between President Sadat of Egypt and Prime Minister Menachem Begin. During Sadat's visit to Jerusalem in November 1977 many journalists asked if Begin would be invited to visit Cairo in return. Sadat avoided the question while Israel occupied Egyptian territory, but he offered to invite Begin to his home in Ismailia, on the west bank of the Suez Canal, some 90 minutes from Cairo.

At the beginning of December, Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan and Egyptian Deputy Prime Minister Hassan Touhamy had met in Morocco to discuss a peace agreement (see the Mossad report on the meeting). Israel had agreed that Egyptian sovereignty over all of occupied Sinai should be restored. However Begin and Dayan wanted to keep the settlements Israel had built there and two air bases, Etzion, near Eilat, and Eitam, near El-Arish and the Rafiach Salient,  under Israeli control. Sadat refused.
In return for his gesture of visiting Jerusalem and offering Israel security within recognized borders, Sadat wanted the Israeli government to make a declaration that it would withdraw from the territories occupied in 1967 and seek a just solution to the Palestinian problem.  This declaration would enable him to make a peace treaty with Israel and to invite the other Arab states to join in. But the  government, especially Begin, who hoped to extend Israeli sovereignty to the West Bank (Judea and Samaria) and Gaza, could not agree. Instead Begin drew up a plan for a temporary regime giving the Palestinian inhabitants autonomy and took it to Washington to be approved by US President Jimmy Carter. On 25 December Begin, together with Dayan, Defence Minister Ezer Weizman and a group of advisers and aides, went to Ismailiya to present the plan to Sadat. The records of their meetings are in the Israel State Archives.
The atmosphere at the talks was friendly. Sadat was celebrating his birthday and he welcomed the delegation to Egypt "perhaps the first time we sit together since Moses crossed the waters not very far from here. We sit together to tell the whole world that we are working for peace and that we shall establish peace." Begin wished him as many years as Moses lived - to the age of 120. He too was sure that the two nations would make peace. They had already agreed to set up a political and a military working committee.

Begin and Sadat after their first meeting in Ismailia
Photograph: Yaacov Sa'ar, Government Press Office

But then Begin began to outline Israel's peace proposals and the autonomy plan. He explained that the Palestinian Arabs would enjoy self rule and the Palestinian Jews security. His long explanation tired Sadat, who had no patience for details. Begin, attacked by the right for presenting a plan which might become the basis for a Palestinian state, felt he was making a great concession. But it did not meet Sadat's needs.
The Egyptians proposed a joint declaration on Israeli withdrawal, on the right of all states, including Israel, to sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence, and on a just solution for the Palestinians based on self-determination. After the legal experts had got together, Begin and Sadat met again. You can see in the record of their meeting how hard it was for each leader to understand the other's background and thinking: Begin, who was so deeply marked by his relatives' death in the Holocaust and by fear of Israel's destruction by the Arabs; Sadat, by his fight for Egypt's independence from colonial rule. He said that for himself, Israel and Egypt could reach a bilateral agreement. "But I cannot do it because Egypt is the leader of the Arab world. Yes, that is right. Egypt has always been the leader." 
(Dayan at Ismailia with Egyptian Foreign Minister Muhammed Ibrahim Kamel (on the right
(and Abd-el Meguid, ambassador to the U.N. (centre
Photograph: Yaacov Sa'ar, Government Press Office
 Begin refused to mention self-determination, which to him meant a Palestinian state ruled by the PLO, then a Soviet- backed terrorist organization. Sadat's Foreign Ministry advisers refused to back down, the meeting was a failure and the two sides issued separate statements. Dayan felt that an opportunity had been missed. But some of the formulations reached at Ismailia later formed the basis for the Camp David agreements. Begin finally visited Cairo in  April 1979, after the signing of the peace treaty.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Leo Lessman's War Diary: The Great War Turns Into a Trench War

In our last post, we presented Leo Lessmann, the son of a Jewish publisher from Hamburg who joined the Imperial German Army at the beginning of the First World War. We showed the first photos from his diary, which captured his enlistment to the army during that time.

Lessmann's unit, Field Artillery Regiment no. 103 (FAR 103), was part of the main German effort in the west, and according to Lessmann's diary, his unit moved through Belgium and northern France. The regiment took part in the Battle of Le Cateau, the second large battle between the German army and the British expeditionary force (BEF) to France. The BEF--the first substantial British army sent to fight in Europe since the Napoleonic wars--landed in France on August 10, 1914, and encountered the advancing German army by the town of Mons, Belgium on August 23. The British army was a small force, and made up of long-serving professional soldiers who specialized in accurate marksmanship, unlike the conscripts in the German and French armies. The British 'Tommies' inflicted heavy losses on the German army, but ultimately retreated before the overwhelming German artillery fire. Two days later, the British commander Sir Horace Smith-Dorien (whose son was killed in the King David hotel bombing on July 1946, as we recounted previously) chose to strike back at the German army and prevented the Germans from chasing the retreating BEF.

The German army continued its advance into northern France, aiming to encircle the French army and the BEF, but the commander of the northern German Army, General von Kluck, changed the direction of his army's movement and turned to aid the army to his south. With that move, he exposed his flank to a French counterattack. The French and the British then struck on September 5 in the Battle of the Marne (famed for the use of Parisian taxis to transport thousands of soldiers to the front) and pushed the German army back. The Germans retreated towards the river Aisne, east of Paris, took the high ground in the area and began digging trenches. At the same time, the "race to the sea" began – a series of attacks aimed to outflank the opposing armies that went from north of Paris to the northern districts of France (Picardy and Nord-Pas de Calais), and Flanders in Belgium. The attacks were repulsed and a line of trenches set up, extending from the North Sea to the border with Switzerland.
Map of the "Race to the Sea" (Wikipedia)
Leo Lessmann's unit participated in the battles on the river Aisne and later in battles in Picardy, especially by the town of Arras. After the failure of their initial maneuvers, and as hope for a quick victory faded, both sides began to entrench themselves. It was a natural reaction to the massive firepower displayed in the war – a combination of fast shooting, long range artillery in combination with machine guns with a rate of fire of 400-500 rounds per minute, and rifles with an effective range of 400 meters at least (here's an excellent short clip by historian Dan Snow, produced by the BBC, on the trenches in WWI). . This wasn't a new phenomenon. Over the years, as firepower intensified and effective rifle ranges grew, soldiers dug into the ground in search of shelter and as a means of defense. Trenches were also for offensive purposes, being a relatively safe place for staging the troops before the assault, as gathering in the open was inconceivable. As the war carried on, the trench systems became more complex and more fortified – especially from the German side, which was on the defensive most of the war on the western front. The trenches were the definitive symbol of the war and drew the lines of the battlefield (literally!) for years.

Here are some of the photos in Leo Lessmann's diary:

Leo Lessmann (in the center) with infantry soldiers in a trench by Beaurains, a village south of Arras.
German soldiers digging a trench

An artillery piece, part of Lessmann's regiment (Lessmann is sitting on the right side, wearing an officers hat with a visor), stationed by the village of Beaurains