JERUSALEM - After half a century of reticence and recrimination, Israel on Wednesday honored nine Egyptian Jews recruited as agents-provocateur in what became one of the worst intelligence bungles in the country's history.
Israel was at war with Egypt when it hatched a plan in 1954 to ruin its rapprochement with the United States and Britain by firebombing sites frequented by foreigners in Cairo and Alexandria.
But Israeli hopes the attacks, which caused no casualties, would be blamed on local insurgents collapsed when the young Zionist bombers were caught and confessed at public trials. Two were hanged. The rest served jail terms and emigrated to Israel.
Embarrassed before the West, Israel long denied involvement. It kept mum even after its 1979 peace deal
with Egypt, fearing memories of the debacle could sour ties.
"Although it is still a sensitive situation, we decided now to express our respect for these heroes," President Moshe Katsav said after presenting the three surviving members of the bomber ring with certificates of appreciation at a Jerusalem ceremony.
What went wrong in the "Lavon Affair" - after Pinhas Lavon, Israel's defence minister when the plot came to light - remains a matter of debate in a country more used to tales of espionage coups.
The Egyptian agents were ignored
The Egyptian Jews were recruited by a fringe unit of Military Intelligence rather than the premier Israeli spy agency Mossad.
The situation recurred in 1985, when U.S. Navy analyst Jonathan Pollard was sentenced to life imprisonment in the United States for passing military secrets to Israel's scientific liaison office.
"As with Pollard, this (Lavon Affair) was a rogue operation," David Kimche, a former Mossad deputy chief, said. "We knew never to go down that road again."
There is a twist to the Egyptian case - the now widespread belief that the bombers were betrayed to the authorities by their Israeli handler, who turned double-agent.
"The general feeling is that he was the one who caused it all," Kimche said.
Under a veil of secrecy, the handler was tried for contacts with Egyptian intelligence and jailed for 10 years. Meanwhile, the agents locked up in Egypt were ignored, excluded from several prisoner exchanges with Israel after the wars of 1956 and 1967.
Now that they have been officially recognised in Israel, the former agents are campaigning for a full account of their operation to be included in the high-school syllabus.
"This is a great day for all of us, those who were hanged and those who died," Marcelle Ninio, the only female member of the cell, said. "We are happy we've got our honor back."