Israel conducted top-secret negotiations with Lebanon's Prime Minister Riad al-Sulh in Paris between mid-November and mid-December in 1948. While these talks were ongoing, Israel's Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion made a decision to assassinate al-Sulh sometime between December 9 and 12, 1948. Since receiving the order to assassinate the Lebanese Prime Minister on December 12, 1948, two groups of Israeli Jews, posing as local Arabs in Beirut, tried to carry out the order, but were unsuccessful; on February 22, 1949, they received a new command cancelling the assassination.
It should be pointed out that Israel's decision to assassinate al-Sulh during a specific period, which is the topic of this study, bears no relation to the eventual assassination of Riad al-Sulh at the hands of the Syrian Socialist Nationalist Party (SSNP) during his visit to Jordan on July 16, 1951; his assassination was in retaliation for his role in the execution of Antoine Saadeh, founder and leader of the SSNP.
This study aims at monitoring and analyzing the secret negotiations conducted between Israel and Riad al-Sulh in the aforementioned period, followed by an examination of Israel's dangerous decision to assassinate the then prime minister of Lebanon and the decision's background, which relates closely to Ben-Gurion's Lebanon policy at the time, especially his attempt to maintain control over the Southern Lebanese region that was occupied by Israel at the time - prior to its official annexation.
In addition to historical works and memoirs that dealt with that period, this study relies on primary sources in the form of reports written by high officials in the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs who participated in the secret negotiations with Riad al-Sulh. These documents, which were classified as top secret, are currently stored at the "State Archives" in Israel. We will draw especially from the reports of Eliyahu Sasson* and Tofeh Arazi, as well as others who were involved in the negotiations.
These documents were made off-limits to the scholarly community until many decades had passed, and provide us with an opportunity to examine the details of the negotiations between Israeli officials and Riad al-Sulh, thus allowing us to delve into the mentality and intentions of the Israeli leaders who conducted these talks and carried out negotiations.
During the period of the British Mandate in Palestine, the political division of the Jewish Agency created an intelligence apparatus whose task was to collect information on Arab countries and build intricate and ramified relations with Arab elites in countries bordering Palestine. This included recruiting agents from their ranks to work for the Jewish Agency. Throughout the period when the mandate was in effect, the vast majority of the political division's meetings with the Arab contacts took place in Arab capitals since, at the time, the borders were open between Palestine and its neighboring countries. Under the request of the Arab elites, these meetings and discussions took place in the utmost secrecy because Arab public opinion at the time considered such meetings, and the politicians who engaged in them, shameful. The Arab public, especially after the Great Palestinian Revolt (1936-1939), began labeling such leaders as connivers and collaborators with Zionism.
After the outbreak of the 1948 War, it became difficult to pursue secret contacts with the Arab elites in most of the neighboring capitals. During the 1948 War, Eliyahu Sasson proposed that the interim government in Israel should establish a base for intelligence and secret diplomatic work in Paris in order to maintain ongoing contacts with members of the Arab elite in the neighboring countries. The interim Israeli government approved Sasson's proposal and allocated a budget for the project. In early-July 1948, Sasson traveled to Paris with two senior officials of the Foreign Ministry's Middle East Department, Tofeh Arazi and Ziyame Dibon, who were joined shortly thereafter by Salim Bikhor, and later - in October 1948 - by Yolanda Harmer. This core group worked in Paris for over six months, during which time Sasson and his team were capable of reconnecting with their old Arab clients, and holding many secret meetings with diverse elements of the Arab elites, some in power, some not, and others in the opposition.
* Sasson was born in Damascus in 1902, and in 1920 he left Syria and settled in Palestine. In 1934, he joined the Arab Department of the Jewish Agency's political division, quickly becoming its director (effectively an intelligence agency for spying on Arabs). After Israel's creation, Eliyahu Sasson became the director of the Middle East Department in the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs; then, he was a minister in Israeli cabinets throughout the 1960s.
For more details on the subject, see Mahmoud Muhareb, "Zionist Intelligence: the Beginning on Spying on Arabs", Al-Mustaqbal al-Arabi
(in Arabic), Issue 257, November 2008.
Shmuel Cohen-Shani, The Paris Campaign: Intelligence and Secret Diplomacy at the Beginning of the State
(in Hebrew) (Tel Aviv: Ramot Publishers, Tel-Aviv University, 1994), pp. 73-75.
Shlomo (ne Salim) Bikhor is an Iraqi Jew who joined the intelligence service of the Jewish Agency's political division as soon as he arrived in Palestine when Israel was established. His mission, while in Paris, was to establish contacts with the Iraqi delegation to the United Nations. Many reports on these contacts are in Israel's state archives (HETS File: 13749)
State Archives, HETS File 70/377; Eliyahu Sasson's message no. 45 from Paris on October 16, 1948. Yolanda Harmer is a Jewish-Egyptian journalist of Greek origin. She worked as a reporter for several foreign publications. Sasson recruited her to work on a salary basis with the Jewish Agency's intelligence service in Cairo in 1945. She used her press credentials and her looks to infiltrate the circles of the Egyptian political elite and many Arab elites in Cairo, especially the main figures in the Arab League. For several years, she was one of the main sources of information for the Jewish Agency in Cairo. She was arrested by the Egyptian authorities months after the outbreak of the 1948 War, but was later released and relocated to Paris in the first ten days of October 1948, continuing her work with Eliyahu Sasson. She immigrated to Israel in 1952.