Jewish terrorists plotted to assassinate Ernest Bevin, the foreign secretary, in 1946, as part of their campaign to establish the state of Israel, newly declassified intelligence files have shown. The plan was devised by Irgun, the insurgent group led by Menachem Begin, who went on to become a Nobel peace prize winner and prime minister of Israel.
Begin, whom MI6 believed was backed by the Soviet Union, planned to send five terrorist cells to Britain to carry out bombings and assassinations that would “beat the dog in his own kennel”.
The Jewish insurgents aimed to force British occupying forces out of Palestine, enabling the founding of the Jewish state. Details of the plot are included in MI5 files released at the National Archives in Kew, London.
Lord Bethell, author of The Palestine Triangle and an expert on Soviet intelligence, said Bevin was detested by Zionist groups. He added, however: “Zionists would be very angry if you compared these people with terrorists now. You have to remember that Irgun were the grandfathers of today’s ruling politicians.
“They would say they were at war with the British and behaved well, fighting under Marquess of Queensberry rules. They would say that they didn’t target civilians.”
Before the establishment of Israel in 1948, Britain governed the whole of Palestine under a mandate from the United Nations. Agitation among the Jewish population for a separate state escalated immediately after the second world war as refugees flooded in from Europe.
It reached its most intense point in July 1946, when the British headquarters at the King David hotel in Jerusalem was bombed by Jewish fighters dressed as Arabs with explosives contained in milk churns. Ninety-one people, 28 of them British, were killed.
The MI5 files contain a report suggesting that Irgun carried out the attack after drawing lots with two other militant groups, Stern and Hagana. Stern drew the lot to attack British ships in the Mediterranean while Hagana were chosen to attack army camps.
In August 1946, the month after the King David attack, Major James Robertson, head of MI5’s Middle East section, warned London that both Begin’s group and Stern were sending five terrorist cells to the capital to mirror IRA tactics of bombing and assassination.
Roberston added: “In recent months it has been reported that they have been training selected members for the purpose of assassinating a prominent British personality. Special reference has been several times made to Mr Bevin.”
Bevin, the Labour foreign secretary, was an opponent of the creation of a Jewish state and had recommended that Jewish refugees in Europe should be forcibly prevented from emigrating to Palestine.
The planned terrorist campaign ended up being restricted largely to letter bombs. In 1947, 20 were sent to leading figures in Britain including Bevin and Anthony Eden, his Tory predecessor.
After the establishment of Israel, Begin, who died in 1992, dissolved Irgun and turned to politics. He became prime minister in the 1970s and was awarded the Nobel prize in 1978 jointly with Anwar Sadat, the president of Egypt, for signing the Camp David peace accords.