Forty years ago today (or yesterday, depending when this article was posted), on June 5, 1967, Israel launched a devastating preemptive strike on its Arab neighbors that marked the beginning of the Six-Day War. The war's outcome proved to be a significant turning point in the history of the Middle East because, as William Roger Louis has observed, "the consequences of Israeli victory extend to the present."
In his definitive study, Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East, Michael B. Oren observed that, by late 1966, "The conflict between the Arab countries and the Israelis, between Arab countries themselves and between the U.S. and the USSR - exacerbated by domestic tensions in each - had created an atmosphere of extreme flammability. In such an atmosphere, it would not take much - a terrorist attack, a reprisal raid - to unleash a process of unbridled escalation, a chain reaction of dare and counterdare, gamble and miscalculation, all leading inexorably to war." [Oren, p.32]
In his chapter titled "Countdown," Oren finds that Egypt's Field Marshall 'Amer was "committed to an Egyptian offensive," [p. 160] Syria "looked very much like a country on the brink of war," [p. 162] and Israel's new Defense Minister, Moshe Dayan "had seized control over much of Israel's decision making, guiding it ineluctably toward war." When writing about the two Egyptian MIG-21 jets that swooped over the Dimona nuclear reactor on May 17, 1967, he observes that "Israel's fear for the reactor - rather than Egypt's fear of it - was the greater catalyst for war." [p. 76]
Thus, to a large extent, Mr. Oren appears to have honored his pledge to avoid any attempt "to prove the justness of one party or another in the war, or to assign culpability for starting it." [p. xv] Unfortunately, you'll find no such disinterested scholarship in a new book, Foxbats over Dimona: The Soviet's Nuclear Gamble in the Six-Day War (Yale University Press), by Isabella Ginor and Gideon Remez.
For, not only do the authors dismiss the consensus opinion that views the Six-Day War "as primarily a local conflict," [Foxbats, p. 2] they also trash the conventional wisdom about the Soviet Union's role in that war: "According to the accepted wisdom, although the Soviet Union did trigger the crisis by making false accusation that Israel was massing troops to attack Syria, Moscow then acted to contain the conflict and to prevent war; when hostilities did break out, the USSR cooperated with the United States to end them." [Ibid]
Instead, the authors assert: "[T]he USSR deliberately instigated the crisis and the war of 1967;…it did so in the context of blocking Israel's nuclear program; and…it committed Soviet personnel and weapons for a direct military intervention." [p. 121]
According to the authors, military coordination with Israel's Arab neighbors, especially Egypt, accompanied the Soviet naval buildup for direct military intervention. Such coordination, which had been solidified by the nuclear guarantee that the Soviets gave Egypt in February 1966 [p. 54], led to "the Egyptian measures that provoked war with Israel in 1967, including the eviction of the United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF) from the Sinai Peninsula and the closure of the Tiran straits." Both "were 'inspired' by the Soviet military." [pp. 68-69]
The Soviet Union instigated the war, because, in December 1965, "the Soviets received an unambiguous message from an authoritative Israeli source that Israel was developing an atomic bomb and intended to arm itself with such a weapon." According Ms. Ginor and Mr. Remez, "the main news for Moscow must have been not the Israeli intent but the fact that it had not yet been realized, and that a window of opportunity still existed to prevent its fruition" [p. 47]
Given Moscow's (heretofore unknown) strategic objective, "the Soviet leadership…preferred to act when and where a US response seemed less probable. One way to reduce this probability, the Soviets correctly perceived, was by ensuring that Israel would strike first, thus incurring international condemnation and US disapproval. And finally, Israel was to be attacked on an issue in which it was at serious odds with the United States: its nuclear program, at a moment when Washington was almost as apprehensive as Moscow about the prospect of Israel acquiring nuclear weapons." [p. 26]
Moscow's nefarious plan was thwarted by Israel's devastating preemptive strike on June 5, 1967, which destroyed the Arab air forces and, thus, convinced Moscow that "its intervention could no longer guarantee an Arab victory but might risk a clash with the United States...The Soviet operation was suspended, implemented only in minor part, and renewed, this time for deterrent effect and with some success, on 10 June after Israel attacked Syria." [p. 12]
Wow! Quite a story! Nevertheless, the authors are not without evidence to support their revisionist interpretation of Soviet perfidy. There exists, for example, the written account of a former Soviet naval officer, Captain Khripunkov, who claims, "on the first day of the Six-Day War…he was ordered to prepare and lead a 30-man 'volunteer' force for a landing on the Israeli coast." [p. 2]
Moreover, there's the collection of Soviet Foreign Ministry papers, edited by Vitaly V. Naumkin and published in 2003. It contains the 23 February 1966 document, which reveals that on 13 December 1965 "one of the leaders of the Israel Communist party, Comrade Sneh, informed the Soviet Ambassador in Tel Aviv about his conversation…with the adviser to the prime minister of Israel, Gariel, in which the later declared Israel's intention to produce its own atomic bomb." [pp. 36-37]
The authors also have uncovered a "Finnish document" indicating that the Soviet Union already had drafted a note (naming Finland as its protective power in Israel after breaking diplomatic relations with Israel) that appears to have been written before Israel had launched its 5 June 1967 preemptive strike. They interpret the document to mean that 'the USSR's premeditated moves included a break of diplomatic relations with Israel after the latter was to be provoked into a first strike against Egypt."
Finally, the authors uncovered evidence to demonstrate "that a Soviet marine landing did take place in the 1967 war." [p. 176]
Armed with such fresh pieces of evidence, the authors looked at some old evidence in a new light. Thus they took seriously the bellicose remarks by Marshal Grechko and other Soviet figures; remarks that earlier students of the war dismissed as "rhetorical hyperbole," [p. 71] And they concluded that the Soviet naval buildup in the Eastern Mediterranean was in support of an operational mission - but with a significant caveat: "Unless the Soviets over-estimated American and Israeli intelligence capabilities, their deployment appears to have been intended for operational use rather than deterrence." [p. 55]
Yet, as if these revisionist tales of Soviet perfidy were not sufficiently breathtaking, for good measure the authors advance their hypothesis that the aircraft which successfully carried out two provocative over flights of Dimona's nuclear reactor were not MIG-21s, as Michael Oren and others had suggested, but experimental MIG-25 "Foxbats." Thus, the book's title.