The Altalena Revisited

A while back I wrote of the relevance of the Altalena Affair for thinking about the Syrian opposition, in particular its lack of leadership and unity.

Here is an excellent recent piece examining the Altalena Affair in more detail, including interviews with major actors. Particularly telling are then UN-representative Abba Eban’s comments, which provide a great illustration of how any rebellion aspiring to recognized sovereignty faces the question of monopolizing force.

(Brief historical background: the right-wing Irgun and Lehi organisations had taken an aggressive stance against the British occupation even during WWII, murdering several British governors. In response, Ben Gurion’s left-wing Haganah had joined the British in fighting these organisations. The Altalena was an Irgun ship carrying arms from France to Palestine in 1947. When the Irgun refused to cede the ship to Ben Gurion, he ordered its destruction, killing 16 Irgun members. Controversy about the affair continues today).

Saidel (Interviewer): How about the Altalena incident? Do you have any comment on that?

Eban: Yes. I was then in the United Nations and I must say that whatever the effects, the wounds are still fresh. The international effects were certainly beneficial because the fight then was — Israel had already been established as a state but the problem of recognition was very sticky.

And one of the arguments against was that there was no proof that the Provisional Government of Israel, as we then called it, really had authority, or full authority, and Ben-Gurion’s action was really related to the need to secure a minimal degree of recognition with which to live in the international context. You cannot live simply as a state with no international connections, and he asserted, really, the sovereignty of Israel. And it was one of his most dramatic, one of his most courageous, but also one of his most, I would say, poignant actions and, after that, the Provisional Government of Israel became respected as the government of Israel, because you can’t be a government unless you have a monopoly of violence. Once you have two armies in a country, then that means that neither of them can be a government. It becomes a Lebanon with militias, like now (1993).

…And his logic was that, unless you have the army under a single jurisdiction you couldn’t honestly say that you were a state. Now, he even applied that unto his own camp because he also went on and he liquidated the separate Palmach. In other words, his obsession with a unified Israel defense force took him into combat with both the left and the right. To the right against what he called the Porishim, the seceders, and to the left the Palmach. In 1947, he was obsessed with idea of how to force the right-wing resistance under his own sway.


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