In a new book that "totally contradicts everything that has been accepted to this day" about the Six Day War, two Israeli authors claim that the conflict was deliberately engineered by the Soviet Union to create the conditions in which Israel's nuclear program could be destroyed. Having received information about Israel's progress towards nuclear arms, the Soviets aimed to draw Israel into a confrontation in which their counterstrike would include a joint Egyptian-Soviet bombing of the reactor at Dimona. They had also geared up for a naval landing on Israel's beaches. "The conventional view is that the Soviet Union triggered the conflict via disinformation on Israeli troop movements, but that it didn't intend for a full-scale war to break out and that it then did its best to defuse the war in cooperation with the United States," Gideon Remez, who co-wrote Foxbats over Dimona, told The Jerusalem Post Tuesday. Essentially, the Soviet Union at the time was regarded as having evolved "a cautious and responsible foreign policy," the book elaborates. "But we propose a completely new outlook on all this," said Remez.
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Coinciding with the 40th anniversary of the war, Foxbats over Dimona: The Soviets' Nuclear Gamble in the Six-Day War, by Remez and Isabella Ginor, is to be published by Yale University Press early next month. The title refers to the Soviets' most advanced fighter plane, the MiG-25 Foxbat, which the authors say flew sorties over Dimona shortly before the Six Day War, both to help bolster the Soviet effort to encourage Israel to launch a war, and to ensure the nuclear target could be effectively destroyed once Israel, branded an aggressor for its preemption, came under joint Arab-Soviet counterattack.
Soviet nuclear-missile submarines were also said to have been poised off Israel's shore, ready to strike back in case Israel already had a nuclear device and sought to use it.
The Soviets' intended central intervention in the war was thwarted, however, by the overwhelming nature of the initial Israeli success, the authors write, as Israel's preemption, far from weakening its international legitimacy and exposing it to devastating counterattack, proved decisive in determining the conflict.
And because the Soviet Union's plan thus proved unworkable, the authors go on, its role in stoking the crisis, and its plans to subsequently remake the Middle East to its advantage, have remained overlooked, undervalued or simply unknown to historians assessing the war over the past 40 years.
Remez said the work was based on "some documentary evidence, in combination with testimonies of rank-and-file and high-ranking participants."
Among these are quotations from the commander of the Soviets' strategic-bomber pilots, Gen. Vasily Reshetnikov, indicating that he and his colleagues were given maps for a planned mission to target Dimona, and from Soviet Foreign Ministry official Oleg Grinevsky to the effect that the outcome of the war "saved Dimona from annihilation."
The book also quotes Soviet naval officer Yuri Khripunkov detailing the orders his ship's captain gave him on June 5, 1967, to raise a 30-strong "volunteer" detachment for a landing mission in Israel. "The mission for Khripunkov's platoon was to penetrate Haifa Port - the Israeli navy's main base and command headquarters," the book states. Khripunkov was told that "similar landing parties were being assembled on board 30-odd Soviet surface vessels in the Mediterranean, for a total of some 1,000 men."
June 5 ended without any such attack, of course, because the initial Israeli attack "had been much more potent than expected."
Nonetheless, according to the authors, some aspects of the Soviets' intended direct intervention were actually put in motion, to help Egypt as Israeli forces advanced into the Sinai, before the cease-fire ended hostilities.
Remez, a longtime prominent Israel Radio journalist, fought in the Six Day War as a paratrooper. Ginor was born in the Ukraine, came to Israel in 1967 and is a noted analyst of Soviet and post-Soviet affairs. The authors, who live in Jerusalem with their teenage sons, say they "fell into this role of historical revisionism" after chancing upon Khripunkov's account of the planned naval landing - which was repeatedly postponed, only to be activated and then aborted as the ship neared the Israeli shores on the last day of the war - in a Ukrainian newspaper.
The authors acknowledge a dearth of incontrovertible documentation that would back up central aspects of their thesis, but note that "it is entirely possible that few corresponding documents ever existed," as was the case when former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev "tried in vain to find the formal resolution to invade Afghanistan, which was adopted less than a decade before he took office."
They add that key documents may have been destroyed, and note that "the accounts of numerous Soviet participants refer to orders that were transmitted only orally down the chain of command."
Historian Michael Oren, author of the landmark Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East, told the Post Tuesday night that he had not found "any documentary evidence to support" the book's central claims. He noted that he had visited the Soviet archives and that "not a lot has been declassified." Oren said he had found "several reasons why the Soviets helped precipitate the war, and this wasn't among them."
Critics cited on the book's jacket are more enthusiastic. Daniel Kurtzer, former US ambassador to Israel and Egypt, for instance, says the central thesis "appears unreal until one assesses the myriad sources and deep documentation that add up to a compelling argument."
Odd Arne Westad, director of the Cold War Studies Center at the London School of Economics, states that "by placing Israeli nuclear ambitions - and the Soviet reaction - as major links in the chain of events, the authors have produced a book that will stand out in the debate about the Cold War and the Middle East."
And former US under secretary of defense Dov Zackheim says the book proves "that the Six Day War marked a major Soviet political-military defeat comparable to the Cuban missile crisis."