On Oct. 18, 1991, Soviet Foreign Minister Boris D. Pankin visited Jerusalem and announced the renewal of diplomatic relations between the near-death superpower and Israel. Their severance had occurred 24 years earlier during the Six Day War.
The re-establishment of diplomatic relations was to foster “lasting peace and stability in this region,” a joint statement read. In a provocative but only somewhat persuasive new history of the Six Day War, Isabella Ginor and Gideon Remez charge the USSR with intentionally undermining that stability 40 years ago by instigating the conflict that helped make the modern Middle East.
The book’s title, “Foxbats Over Dimona,” refers to Israel’s Dimona reactor, the worst kept secret in the nuclear world. Partially in response to the embarrassing 1956 Suez War, Israel (with French assistance) began pursuing nuclear weapons, in a move that would deter its enemies and dramatically shift the balance of power away from the USSR and its Arab allies.
In pages reminiscent of a Cold War espionage thriller, Ms. Ginor and Mr. Remez describe a history-changing encounter in December 1965. According to a recently published Soviet memorandum, a high-ranking Israeli adviser somewhat inexplicably divulged, to the head of Israel’s Communist Party, Jerusalem’s “intention to produce its own atomic bomb.”
This information quickly reached the Kremlin, which saw that “a window of opportunity still existed to prevent its fruition.” The Soviet Union began beating the war drum and found eager comrades in Egypt and Syria.
As May 1967 progressed, Egyptian MiG-21s and, the authors believe, a Soviet-operated MiG-25 (the Foxbat) conducted aerial surveillance over Dimona. The detailed attention that the authors pay to the intricacies of these missions — documented with captured Egyptian maps, published memoirs, interviews with Russian and Israeli pilots and intuition — is wearying at times but lays the groundwork for increasing Israeli anxiety and alleged further Soviet involvement in the approaching conflict.
And there was Soviet meddling elsewhere. In the weeks leading to war, Moscow conducted an extensive disinformation campaign toward its allies, Syria and Egypt. It repeatedly made false claims that Israeli troops were amassing at the Syrian border, which, despite contradictory reports from Egypt’s intelligence services, set off a chain of events that included rapid Egyptian mobilization and subsequent Israeli reserve call-ups.
On May 22, Egyptian President Gamel Abdel Nasser closed the Straits of Tiran, which the authors argue was a Soviet-supported plan to induce an Israeli pre-emptive strike, thus producing the casus belli for full-scale attacks on Israel and its nuclear facilities. Egypt had wanted to carry out its own pre-emptive strike, but the Soviets refused permission.
Indeed, the authors’ research reveals Soviet fingerprints all over Egyptian military planning. They detail suspicious diplomatic communiques, previously unknown Brezhnev speeches and a host of other Cold War statecraft artifacts.
But to view Nasser as Pinocchio to the Soviet Union’s Geppetto is misguided. The brilliant orator, who captured the imaginations of the Arab and post-colonial worlds, had his own interests to defend amid a stagnating economy, a military quagmire in Yemen and competing claims to pan-Arab leadership. To discount Arab (and Israeli) leaders’ agency in favor of the second superpower’s domination exaggerates the transformative capabilities of any superpower. Just as Egypt served Soviet interests, at times Moscow served Cairo’s.
Also, the authors’ claims that the Soviets intended to intervene directly in the conflict on a large scale is unconvincing.
Soviet advisers played a key role in the June War, but the authors cite a Polish translator who quoted Soviet General-Secretary Leonid Brezhnev telling two Eastern Bloc leaders in April 1967 that “a ‘decisive blow’ was about to be dealt to American interests in the Middle East, ‘even at the cost of sacrificing Nasser.’ ”
If the Soviets were planning a significant intervention on behalf of Syria and Egypt, there would be little risk of sacrificing Nasser.
Despite intriguing interviews with Soviet military veterans, there is no smoking Kalashnikov. Proxy warfare — with occasional, limited direct involvement, as in Korea — not reckless escalation, was the Soviet modus operandi.
“I think you’re going to have a major Middle East war and I think we will still be sorting it out fifty years from now,” former UNEF commander, the late Inda Jit Rikhye, told Nasser in late May 1967. One thing “Foxbats over Dimona” conclusively shows is that we are four-fifths of the way to realizing his prophecy.
Sean R. Singer is an apprentice editor at the National Interest.
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