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Friday, June 21, 2013 

Ben-Gurion's assault on the Altalena damaged French relations with Israel

Moshe Fuksman-Shaal tells some interesting history about how the assault on the Altalena ship Ben-Gurion approved of did serious harm to Israel's relations with France:
Today is the 65th anniversary of the Altalena incident, which still stirs controversy. The Altalena was an Irgun ship bringing in weapons to help fend off the Arab invasion. But Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion saw it as an attempt to undermine the authority of his provisional government ordered that the Altalena be sunk. In the confrontation between the Irgun and the Israel Defense Forces, 16 Irgun members and three IDF soldiers died. An important arms shipment ended up at the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea and Holocaust survivors who had come to fight the Arabs were shocked by the unexpected greeting they received from the Israeli government. A civil war was only avoided due to the determination of Irgun leader Menachem Begin, who opposed the members of his group who demanded retaliation.

Today, it is worth turning our attention to a previously overlooked aspect of the incident: the source of the weapons that were onboard the ship. The Altalena carried thousands of rifles, several hundred machine guns and millions of rounds of ammunition, as well as explosives, mortars, shells and body armor. The arms shipment, worth millions of dollars, was donated to the Irgun by the French government.

The French government's provision of weapons to the Irgun shocked Israel's provisional government, whose requests for military aid from Western nations, including Britain and the U.S., had been rebuffed. These countries had imposed an arms embargo on both Israel and its Arab opponents. Much to the provisional government's distress, it had to turn to the Communist bloc for weapons. After getting approval from Joseph Stalin, Czechoslovakia agreed to sell Israel the arms it needed. But the weapons weren't cheap, and, given the tough economic situation Israel was in, extraordinary efforts were required to raise the funds for the more than $12 million expenditure, a huge sum in those days that totaled one-third of Czechoslovakia's foreign currency income.

Despite the opposition of other Western countries, the French government, which consisted of former Resistance members who had fought the Nazis, decided to give weapons to the Irgun due to the French government's view of Irgun members as brothers-in-arms and its solidarity with the Irgun's fight against British colonialism.

For years, Irgun members had been portrayed as "dissidents" and "terrorists" who harmed the world's sympathy for the Zionist struggle. But now, the French arms shipment might change the public's attitude toward the Irgun, as the group had obtained an unforeseen gift from a Western government. [...]

After the sinking of the Altalena, the French government's anger at Ben-Gurion led to France's recognition of Israel being delayed for many months and it took almost a decade for France to openly support Israel.
Ben-Gurion was so embarrassed by the incident he opposed any investigation into it afterwards. He never apologized for inciting against the Irgun or attacking the ship, and ended up damaging relations with France, and possibly Czechoslovakia too. All out of pointless jealousy. Now, we have to hope this kind of news benefits Israel for the better.

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