The failed attempt on Ambassador Shlomo Argov's life led to one of the most complicated and difficult episodes in Israel's history
The Dorchester Hotel, London — one of the world’s swankiest. Owned for decades by modern-day sultans and Middle Eastern magnates, the Dorchester has been a favorite hangout for countless cultural icons from Hitchcock to Streisand. Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, held a legendary stag party there before marrying the future Queen Elizabeth II.
The Dorchester is about as far as it gets from the muddy forests of southern Lebanon, yet that’s where the First Lebanon War started. Kind of.
One night in June of 1982, dozens of diplomats gathered at the Dorchester for an annual gala event. Before midnight, Shlomo Argov—the eloquent, Jerusalem-born, Georgetown and LSE-educated Israeli ambassador to the United Kingdom—left the hotel and headed toward his car.
Moments before, in the men’s bathroom of the nearby Hilton Hotel, a meeting had taken place that would change the history of the Middle East. There, Marwan al-Banna took out a brown bag he had retrieved from his car. He revealed a Polish W.Z.63 submachine gun accompanied by two magazines of ammunition and handed them to his comrade, Hussein Sa’id.
Sa’id left around 11:00 p.m. and waited nervously in front of a BMW showroom, popping out as Argov approached his Volvo, shooting him and fleeing the scene.
In The Master Terrorist: The True Story Behind Abu Nidal, journalist Yossi Melman, who covered the failed assassination and subsequent trials, includes a firsthand account of the events recalled by Colin Simpson, the bodyguard assigned to Argov that night:
“He bent down somewhat and was about to enter the car. When he was about to put his head inside, I heard a noise behind me. The ambassador fell to the pavement. I looked down at him and saw what appeared then as an extremely serious wound.”
Simpson chased after Sa’id, shooting him just below the ear but not before being shot at himself, with one of the assailant’s bullets narrowly missing his head. According to Melman, “The police investigators later found that the submachine gun had been set for firing single rounds, otherwise Simpson would probably have been struck several times by the 24 bullets remaining in the magazine.”
Argov was less fortunate. A bullet went through his brain. He was comatose for months and would be paralyzed for the rest of his life, spending decades bedridden, primarily in Jerusalem’s Hadassah Hospital.
Ambassador Victor Harel, who worked closely with Argov, remembered him as a “diplomatic giant,” a seventh-generation Jerusalemite who continued fighting after being injured in Israel’s War of Independence, going on to become one of the foreign service’s most valued assets. Argov was reportedly handpicked for the London post by Prime Minister Menachem Begin, despite the fact that the two belonged to adversarial political camps. Such a decision, shortly after Begin’s historic rise to power after decades in the political wilderness, indicated the trust and respect Argov had earned as a man whose service to his country superseded his personal political ideology.
Retaliation and terrorists
Within hours of the assassination attempt, an emergency Israeli cabinet meeting concluded with a decision to hit 11 PLO targets in Lebanon, two of them in Beirut. In the meeting, Begin very clearly emphasized the urgency of action. According to military historian Shimon Golan, author of the most comprehensive work to date detailing the high-level decision-making processes during the war, Begin determined that “Israel could not wait to receive a report from Scotland Yard [regarding the terrorists’ organizational affiliation]; it had to strike without delay, the very same day, at the center of international terror in Lebanon …”
IDF Chief of Staff Rafael “Raful” Eitan recommended the initial targets to hit. Begin accepted the recommendations and emphasized that Israel had to be careful to avoid civilian casualties, while being ready for the inevitable response, including PLO attacks on Israeli civilians.
According to accounts culled from official sources and documentation, including those relayed by Golan and Melman, no major pushback, arguments, or heated discussions took place in the meeting that morning. Interestingly, even though then-Minister of Defense Ariel Sharon is largely credited with designing and pushing the plans for the Lebanon War, he was in Romania at the time and was not even present at this most critical juncture.
Retaliatory rockets came shortly after the initial air strikes, and the Israeli leadership’s discourse shifted from how to respond to deciding on the most advantageous time to launch a ground operation. The ensuing war, known as Operation Peace for the Galilee or the First Lebanon War, led, among other things, to the decimation of PLO forces in Lebanon and their expulsion to Tunis.
Yet the PLO had nothing to do with the attack on Ambassador Shlomo Argov. The day after the assassination attempt, Shin Bet chief Avraham Shalom had already reported to the Israeli leadership that the perpetrators likely belonged to the so-called Abu Nidal Organization (ANO), a rival Palestinian terrorist faction bent on taking down the PLO.
Raful Eitan famously quipped: “Abu Nidal, Abu Shmidal. We have to strike at the PLO!”
Founded by Sabri Khalil al-Banna, the Jaffa-born scion to one of Mandatory Palestine’s richest families better known as “Abu Nidal,” the ANO committed dozens of hijackings, murders, assassinations, and other terrorist attacks around the world beginning in the 1970s, largely at the whim of its tempestuous founder. Though the ANO did target Israeli and Jewish people and sites, most of their attacks were against Palestinians or other Arabs, particularly diplomats, journalists, and various public figures.
“He didn’t believe in religion or Ba’athism or Marxism or anything else,” an acquaintance of Abu Nidal’s once told Patrick Seale, author of a biography on the terrorist. “The gun was his ideology and his ideology was the gun.”
Questions and conspiracies
For nearly a year prior to the assassination attempt, the Israel-Lebanon border had been overwhelmingly quiet following a U.S.-brokered agreement between Israel and the PLO. Yet the latter continued perpetrating attacks against Israel and Israeli targets internationally. Israel’s political and defense establishment generally agreed that Lebanon could not continue to serve as the PLO’s home base, and, in fact, detailed plans for the invasion, known as “Operation Oranim,” were ready long before the failed assassination and subsequent ground incursion, which was overwhelmingly approved by all parties in the Knesset except for one.
The exact reason Abu Nidal chose to attack Argov in London on that night in June 1982 remains elusive, but many theories have been suggested, including one peddled largely by Abu Nidal’s Palestinian enemies that he himself worked for the Mossad and ordered the assassination attempt in order to give Israel a justification for attacking the PLO in Lebanon.
In a rare interview, Abu Nidal was once asked by Der Spiegel why he ordered the attack, especially in light of the fact that it ultimately — and somewhat predictably — led to Israel’s invasion of Lebanon. In characteristically paranoid fashion, the terrorist leader responded:
“The Zionist ambassador in London was one of the heads and founders of the Israeli secret service, the Mossad. We attacked the ambassador when he had just been assigned a major role by the Mossad in Europe. Our fighters acted scrupulously in terms of my strict orders not to harm any other ambassador.”
He admitted that at the time, “Any blind man could see the Zionist plans to invade Lebanon,” though he categorically denied the role the assassination attempt played in instigating the war: “… in my eyes, it has not been proven and it is not true that the attack on the life of the ambassador was the spark that ignited the war.”
While the explanation that Abu Nidal was himself an Israeli puppet is almost certainly the invention of his political rivals, the motives behind the argument are probably not so far from the truth. According to many, including Ze’ev Schiff and Ehud Ya’ari, veteran Israeli journalists and co-authors of Israel’s Lebanon War, the hit was ordered by Abu Nidal in close coordination with Iraqi authorities in order to serve a number of strategic objectives.
First, they knew the assassination would likely lead to a significant Israeli attack on the PLO in Lebanon—something undoubtedly to Abu Nidal’s liking and benefit. Iraq also had a clear interest in Israel attacking Lebanon, not least because it would weaken or at least divert Syrian forces away from the Iraqi border.
In The Master Terrorist, Melman dubs the Iraqi scenario “extremely credible.” He adds that the Iraqis, then facing internal strife and mired in the long and bloody Iran-Iraq War—which they were losing—had another interest in provoking the Israeli attack:
“If the Israelis would indeed invade, Iraq could request a cease-fire or declare one unilaterally, while appealing to the need for Muslim and Arab solidarity against the Zionist enemy.”
Iraq did just that, announcing: “We believe in the urgent need to direct all our energy and resources to a confrontation with the Zionist aggression against the Arab world, the Palestinian people, and Lebanon.”
Unfortunately for Saddam Hussein, no one — including the Iranians — paid much attention to the proposal.
Though the would-be assassination certainly served some of Abu Nidal’s interests, he couldn’t have known in advance what the impact would be on his own organization and particularly its activities in London.
The attackers, including Abu Nidal’s cousin, Marwan al-Banna, were quickly apprehended, and later tried and convicted. During the investigations, some details about the planning and implementation of the attack came to light. The explicit order to carry out the attack that night did not come down until the afternoon of the same day, when Na’if Rosan, one of the assailants, answered a public telephone outside his apartment in the Kensington neighborhood of London and was given instructions by one “Comrade al-Sayf.” Rosan instructed al-Banna and Hussein Sa’id to meet him at the Hilton Hotel, where he told them that Argov, who at that point was still mingling at the Dorchester, was their target that night. He gave the gun to Sa’id, who carried out the attack while Rosan and al-Banna loitered nearby.
All three were apprehended within hours.
The police found a list of some 300 names in al-Banna’s hostel room—most of them Israeli and British Jewish figures and organizations, including Chief Rabbi of Great Britain Sir Immanuel Jakobovits; the chairman of the board of the Jewish Chronicle; and a local Chabad school, including the license plate numbers of the vehicles used to transport its students. The addresses of the Jordanian, Moroccan, Saudi, Egyptian, Kuwaiti, and UAE embassies were also on the list.
According to an interrogation transcript cited by Melman, when asked about the purpose of the list and related information, al-Banna explained, “We wanted to strip the mask from these institutions and places. We know that many of them are actually fronts for the Mossad, the Israeli secret service, or are potential centers for Israeli intelligence. We only wanted to reveal their true identity and publish it, so as to warn the Arabs away from these people and places …”
Regarding the presence of Arab diplomatic and other institutions on the list, al-Banna said, “There are many groups that are ostensibly on our side but are in reality against us, such as Saudi Arabia.”
The prosecutor in the case, who referred to the trial as “the Baghdad connection,” admitted that many questions remained, yet asserted that “we have managed to open a window—even if only a small one—into the secret world of this terrorist secret organization.”
The arrests and sentencings essentially marked the end of any major ANO activities on British soil, though the organization continued to sow terror and target primarily Jordanian, Palestinian, Israeli, Jewish, and other institutions and figures worldwide for another decade or so. In 1984, Abu Nidal even tried to assassinate Queen Elizabeth II during her visit to Amman.
Nonetheless, the aftermath of the Argov assassination attempt certainly had significant implications for Abu Nidal’s activities in the U.K. and internationally, which had nothing to do with the conflict in Lebanon and which will never be fully understood.
From a circumstantial historical perspective, it seems quite clear that sooner or later there would have been a Lebanon War even had Shlomo Argov never been shot. Perhaps that’s why the failed assassination’s historic role as the spark that ignited the war has largely been ignored over the past four decades.
The pointed event was also, of course, very quickly overshadowed by the war itself and its immediate and long-term ramifications, including thousands of deaths and lives disrupted and ruined.
Though overwhelmingly popular at first, the war would ultimately leave Israeli troops in Lebanon for nearly 20 years, create a vacuum that has since been filled by Hezbollah, and spark the most significant antiwar movement in Israel’s history. Some of that sentiment was magnified and parlayed by Begin’s political enemies, yet the fact remains that the popular movements against the war and in favor of conscientious objection to military service had never been seen in Israel at that scale. The conflict splintered the country and, according to many, has severely tarnished trust in elected and military officials ever since.
About a year after the assassination attempt and the outbreak of the war, Argov himself—physically paralyzed but intellectually astute—publicly expressed his personal thoughts on the war for the first time, dictating a short letter to a close friend. Mourning the tremendous loss of life, and contrasting the war with the existentially imperative Six-Day War 15 years earlier, Argov presented a critique of Israel’s political and military leadership, while diplomatically refraining from naming names.
Had the war’s planners thought more about its potential consequences beforehand, Argov argued, “they would have saved the lives of hundreds of our best sons.”
From the hospital bed where he would languish for the next two decades, Argov argued:
“We are a nation short in human resources. We do not have the ability to run experiments in the hope that one of them comes out all right. Even if one of them does succeed—what’s the good of amputated arms and legs?”
Lamenting the fact that during its short history Israel constantly and justifiably had to live by the sword due to the choices of its neighbors, Argov emphasized the eternal desire for peace, which for Israel “more than any other nation is not a slogan void of content, but rather life’s foremost essence and a truth.”
Argov’s role in the outbreak of the Lebanon War was not determinative. Yet in retrospect, there was perhaps no more appropriate trigger to this tragic and confounding conflict than the “wrong” terrorist group botching a hit on a man who bridged a toxic political divide at a time when few others did.
A version of this article was originally published in Tablet Magazine. It appears here as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to connect with people, institutions and communities across Europe and beyond, through storytelling, knowledge sharing and community engagement.