Friday, August 24, 2007

Russian enigma unfolds?

Soviet policy in the Middle East in the years just prior to the 1967 War has long been a puzzle. As I noted in a recent post, between May 1966 and May 1967, they warned the Syrians and/or the Egyptians no less than 5 times that the Israelis were massing to invade Syria. On no occasion was it true, though the last warning (made to Anwar Sadat in early May, 1967) played a big role in Nasser's decision to move troops into the Sinai, one of the key triggers for the war. All the time they were crying out in the UN about the need to preserve the peace.

Even with their primary Middle Eastern client, Syria, the Soviets seemed to be working in two directions at once. As Michael Oren notes in Six Days of War

At the exact time when Foreign Minister Andre Gromyko was impressing upon the Politburo the need to avoid further conflicts with the United States, particularly in the Middle East, the Soviet fleet was rapidly building up in the eastern Mediterranean. In Damascus, Soviet diplomats were urging the regime to tone down its bellicose rhetoric, while in the field, Red Army advisors were spurring the Syrian Army to activism. Ambitious to achieve its long-standing dream of isolating turkey and controlling strategic waterways of the East, of neutralizing the threat from the US Sixth Fleet, the Soviets were at the same time afraid of war, and afraid of the Arab radicalism that could trigger it. (p43)
Might they have had other, more sinister plans? Gideon Remez and Isabella Ginor, authors of the recent book Foxbats over Dimona, think so. They believe that Soviet machinations were concentrated on one point: Israel's growing nuclear capability and its reactor at Dimona.

According to Oren, as well, Israel's actions in May and June of 1967 had indeed a lot to do with Dimona, though the Israelis were preoccupied with Egypt's rather than Russsia's intentions towards the reactor. On the afternoon of May the 17th, two Migs overflew Dimona at very low altitude. They were identified as Mig 21s, belonging to the Egyptian Air Force, which sent alarm bells ringing throughout the Israeli military and government.

However, Remez and Ginor, relying on the testimony of Soviet military personnel, maintain that they were in fact new Mig 25s (Foxbats) from the Soviet Air Force. And it seems that their assertion has recently been backed up by the Soviets themselves on the official Web site of the Russian Defense Ministry. Why were the Soviets willing to be so involved? Remez and Ginor claim that the Soviets wanted to provoke Israel into attacking in order to have an excuse to knock out the reactor. Unfortunately, the war went so far and so fast against their client states that the plan had to be aborted.

To think that the Soviets might have been directly, militarily involved in the Six-Day War seems incredible today, but the Israeli leaders of the time were obsessed with the possibility. Until circumstances made it either irresistible or inevitable, Dayan strenuously denied all requests for action against Syria or to take Jerusalem precisely because of the fear that the Soviets might get involved. For him and many others, it was not only possible, it was probable.

That involvement was indeed their intention would come as no great suprise, but the circumstances would have had to be very carefully calibrated. Obviously, the Sixth Fleet would have been the greatest factor to consider. But once again, things were very different then. The US was not Israel's automatic friend. It would not supply arms (most of Israel's weaponry was French) and looked with great disfavour on Dimona (built, once again, with French help). So it was not entirely inconceivable that, given the right international climate, the Americans might allow the Soviets to act.

According to this article, Remez and Ginor also accuse the Soviets of luring Israel to attack the USS Liberty, which does stretch credulity somewhat. But if their central claim about the Soviet overflight of Dimona is correct, then there is some explaining to do. I'll be interested to hear what Michael Oren has to say about it.

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