In the spring of 1967, the Arab nations, led by Egypt under president Gamal Abdel Nasser, were preparing for war with Israel. The Soviet Union was their backer but at one point Moscow's support appeared to be weakening. So, on May 23, 40 years ago this week, Nasser summoned the Soviet ambassador in Cairo and set him straight: "I want you to tell your bosses in Moscow that the USSR is the main factor influencing everything that is happening now." It was all up to them.
That quote, appearing in Michael Oren's classic account, Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East (2002), belongs to a distant, utterly different world. During the Cold War, the key element in every struggle was the competition between the West and the U.S.S.R. Much of the world was divided into Soviet and American dependencies.
The Arabs were Soviet clients but in 1967 Moscow passed on to them a piece of disinformation about Israel preparing to invade Syria. That was a lie, as everyone now agrees. Why was it told? The motives have always remained vague.
For several years two Israeli journalists, Isabella Ginor and Gideon Remez, have studied the Soviet role in the Middle East. Their revisionist account, Foxbats over Dimona: The Soviets' Nuclear Gamble in the Six-Day War (Yale University Press), will appear in early June, on the war's 40th anniversary.
At the time Moscow was believed to be playing a cautious and conservative role in the region, even acting as a peacemaker when hostilities were winding down. Now Ginor and Remez claim that the Soviets engineered the war as a way to strengthen and extend their power in the Middle East and destroy Israel's nuclear capability.
They planned to draw Israel into a conflict, then arrive in the role of international policeman punishing an aggressor. They were prepared even to land their troops on Israel's beaches. Above all, they would demolish the nuclear reactor at Dimona. (The title of the book also refers to the MiG-25 Foxbat, the most advanced Soviet fighter plane of the time.)
Foxbats over Dimona is based on the authors' conversations with Soviet officers and politicians. They never uncovered a document that would prove their case but found some credible witnesses. They speculate that there may have been no documents to find; "the accounts of numerous Soviet participants refer to orders that were transmitted only orally down the chain of command."
In any case, the Soviet plan was frustrated. The Israelis, rightly convinced they were about to be attacked, struck first. On June 4, Field Marshal Abdel Hakim Amer, Nasser's military chief, predicted that soon the Arabs would "rid ourselves of Israel once and for all." But the next morning, a surprise attack by Israel found many Egyptian aircraft still on the ground. During about 100 minutes the Israelis destroyed 286 of the 420 planes the Soviet Union had given Egypt, wrecking 13 airfields and all Egyptian radar installations. At 10:35 that morning, Motti Hod, the Israeli air force commander, turned to Yitzhak Rabin, the chief of staff, and said, "The Egyptian air force has ceased to exist."
Five days later the war was over. For the Soviets it was as serious a defeat as the Cuban missile crisis five years earlier, but it was not humiliating in the same way. They simply never acknowledged it.
It was also the most remarkable military victory in the modern history of the Middle East and on June 5 the Israelis will commemorate it as a major achievement in their national history. Of course, it failed to create the stability they sought. It brought a tragic burden in the form of hostile territory and embittered Palestinians, and it led to the Yom Kippur War, the Munich massacre, two Intifadas and much else, including last summer's war. It also damaged Israel's reputation among the simple-minded everywhere. Till 1967, Israel was an underdog commanding the world's sympathy -- a popular favourite. Victory changed its image. Now it appeared more like a military power.
Still, it was a victory that had to be won. When war was approaching, A.A. Grechko, the Soviet minister of defence, declared: "The 50th year of the Great October Socialist Revolution will be the last year of the existence of the State of Israel." That possibility, chillingly real in 1967, was avoided by the audacity of Israel's leaders and the bravery of its soldiers and pilots. However mixed the results, the Six-Day War remains worth celebrating.