Isabella Ginor is a Research Fellow of the Hebrew University's Truman Institute. She came to Israel from her native Ukraine shortly before the Six-Day War. She was a specialist on the former USSR at the leading Israeli newspaper Haaretz and is a frequent commentator for other national and foreign media.
Gideon Remez is a sabra and historian by training. He fought in the Six-Day war as an Israeli paratrooper. He won several prestigious awards for his daily rogram International Hour, which he edited and presented for more than half his 36-year career at the country's premier national radio network.
Both are the co-authors of the new book, Foxbats Over Dimona: The Soviets' Nuclear Gamble in the Six-Day War, just published by Yale University Press.
FP: Isabella Ginor and Gideon Remez, welcome to Frontpage Interview.
Ginor: It's our pleasure.
Remez: We're delighted at your interest.
FP: What inspired you to write this book?
Ginor: Almost eight years ago, in the course of our joint journalistic work, my routine scan of media from the former Soviet Union turned up a curious item of more than topical interest but seemed utterly fantastic. In a Ukrainian daily, a former Soviet naval officer related how, on the first day of the Six-Day War in June 1967, on board a frigate in the eastern Mediterranean, he was ordered to prepare and lead a 30-man “volunteer” force for a landing on the Israeli coast. He went on to describe how the operation was repeatedly postponed until, on the war’s last day, it was activated--only to be aborted when the ship was within 20 miles of its assigned beachhead, Haifa port.
I turned to Gideon, who was busy with his own routine scan of the US media, and asked him: "Did you ever hear about anything like this?" He said: "Never."
Remez: Our initial disbelief grew as we consulted the authoritative historical works on the period. Not only was there no mention of a direct Soviet military intervention in the war, whether planned or implemented; virtually all accepted wisdom held that such an intervention would have been impossible and would have contradicted Soviet policy. But our journalistic instincts--as well as our personal memories of the war--dictated that this clue for such a radically different interpretation of our Middle Eastern generation’s defining event had to be thoroughly investigated, even though we fully expected to consign it to our already brimming wastebasket of false leads. Instead, the account provided by our naval officer – whom we found to be absolutely reliable and respectable – turned out to be the tip of an iceberg. We discovered a massive body of corroborating evidence from mutually independent sources. In the case of the naval landing, for instance, similar reports from several of the Soviet navy's surface warships that were then in the eastern Mediterranean, including thepublished testimony of a marine officer whose unit actually did land, but was decimated by the Israeli air force. But the operation also included submarines -- some of them armed with nuclear missiles; strategic bombers, whose pilots were issued maps of targets in Israel; fighter-plane squadrons, which were to cover the bombers and assist Arab air forces -- and more. We cross-checked all this against Israeli, US and other Western archival documents and other sources, and found nothing to refute the emerging pattern. Indeed, in many cases it dovetailed neatly with hitherto inexplicable references in the known record.
FP: What is the meaning of your book's title?
Remez: Foxbats over Dimona refers to what you might call our exhibit A. It is only one of numerous elements that we present to establish our case, but it ties together all the main strands of our argument. The better-known of these two terms is Dimona, the location of Israel's main nuclear complex. "Foxbat" is the NATO code name for the Soviet MiG-25 aircraft. On 17 and 26 May 1967, at the height of the crisis that Moscow itself had triggered with fabricated warnings about Israeli "troop concentrations," two reconnaissance flights passed over Dimona. They caused extreme consternation, not to say panic, in the Israeli leadership and were a major catalyst for ite decision to launch a pre-emptive strike, as neither Israel's best fighters could not intercept the intruders.
One of our main discoveries was that these flights were carried out not by Egyptian MiG-21's, as had been suggested in previous accounts, but by top Soviet pilots in the still-experimental and yet secret MiG-25 prototypes, which were at the time entirely unknown to the West and outclassed any plane that the West or Israel had, for both speed and altitude. This distinction is far more than merely technical. It demonstrates that the USSR acted deliberately to precipitate the war, that Moscow committed its own personnel and hardware for the purpose, and that Israel's nuclear project was central among both the Soviets' motives and their targets.
Ginor: Here too, our progress was typical of investigative journalism, or of a detective story. We started from the equivalent of a suspicious alibi: The MiG-21's performance was almost identical with that of Israel's Mirage IIIC fighter. So what could those intruders have been, if the Israelis couldn't catch up with them? The Soviets were already known to have flown Foxbats over Israel in 1971-72, and even then with impunity. Could they have done so four years earlier than anyone let on so far? Sure enough, we found circumstantial evidence in the Soviet aviation literature: the MiG-25 was put through operational tests in the Arab-Israeli arena "in the late 1960's." Once we knew where to look, we quite soon found a material witness: a former Soviet general and World War II flying ace, who testified on several occasions -- including once in the United States -- that in 1967 he flew a dozen sorties over Israel, including two in a MiG-25 which were so sensitive that they had to be approved personally by the defense minister in Moscow. That was enough for us to issue an indictment -- an academic paper (the latest in a series), which came to the attention of Jonathan Brent, the Editorial Director of Yale University Press and an expert on Soviet affairs. Like other Cold War scholars, he grasped the significance of this matter -- and he suggested that we present our research in a book.
While the jury was out -- that is, after the book went to press -- we had the sublime gratification of being handed a signed confession: an article by the spokesman on the Russian Air Force, posted on the Russian Defense Ministry's website -- about as official as you can get -- confirming the Foxbat flights over Israel in 1967. So this case is now effectively closed.
FP: O.k., so what is your book’s main thesis?
Ginor: Our book asserts, and we think it proves, that the Soviet Union, starting at the latest in mid-1966, elaborated with Egypt and Syria a detailed plan for precipitating the crisis. Upon the agreed signal and pretext of a false Soviet warning about Israeli preparations to attack Syria, Egypt was to initiate provocative measures that Israel would have to regard as a casus belli: deployment of the Egyptian army into the demilitarized Sinai, expulsion of the United Nations force posted there since 1956, and a blockade of Israel's southern port. This was aimed at drawing Israel into a pre-emptive strike, which would then legitimize a direct military intervention by the USSR in favor of its clients once Israel was internationally branded as the aggressor.
In the Soviet estimate, if Israel and its Arab neighbors were allowed to fight it out on their own, they would reach a stalemate. Even a limited Soviet intervention, of which we previously mentioned some components, might thus tip the balance against Israel. While the USSR did not actively seek a superpower clash, it was prepared to assume some risk by probing the envelope. It assumed -- quite correctly, as the events proved -- that the United States would be less likely to respond in kind if the Israelis struck first, and certainly if the Soviets’ prime motive and target was Israel’s nuclear program.
Remez: This nuclear aspect -- the "gamble" referred to in our book's title -- was our latest and most dramatic discovery. It answered the main objection that critics raised to our initial findings: that even a calculated risk of a confrontation with the United States was disproportionate to any regional advantage that the Soviets might gain by helping to inflict a defeat on Israel. This discrepancy was resolved after we read a remarkable memorandum that was included --almost certainly by oversight -- in a recently published collection of Soviet Foreign Ministry documents. It relates how in December 1965, Isser Harel, the former Mossad chief who was then an adviser to Prime Minister Levi Eshkol, relayed a message via the leader of Israel’s communist party to the Soviet embassy. The message was that despite its official ambiguity, Israel was bent on developing and procuring nuclear weapons. Our book discusses a wide variety of possible motives for Harel’s extraordinary move, but what matters is that the Soviets took his message as genuine – and acted upon it as a threat to Soviet interests and even to the USSR’s own security.
By 1965 the Soviets were certainly aware of Israel’s nuclear project – which had been a top priority for its spies in Israel. But they may not have known the stage that it had reached. Therefore, the main news for Moscow must have been that the goal of nuclear weapons had not yet been consummated, and that a window of opportunity still existed to prevent its fruition. Moscow was thus posed with a dilemma not unlike the one that Washington now faces in respect of Iran. Indeed, we found that Harel's message was immediately followed by a spurt of Soviet counteraction. It began with diplomatic efforts to dissuade Israel, but within a few months shifted to military preparations. Besides the joint war plan, these included a nuclear guarantee for Egypt: One of the first elements of the Soviet intervention to be implemented, early in 1967, was the insertion of nuclear missile submarines into the Mediterranean and later into the Red Sea, with orders to fire them on a prearranged code signal, in the event that Israel did possess, and tried to explode, some nuclear device But the Soviets also prepared to assist in a conventional strike at the Israeli nuclear project: their strategic bombers were assigned Dimona as a target.
FP: What evidence is your argument based on?
Remez: As the Harel memorandum exemplifies, some important documents did emerge from Soviet archives. Others surfaced in former Warsaw-Pact member states, and we make use -- cautiously and critically -- of both kinds. But the widespread notion that Soviet archives were systematically opened was a myth even in Yeltsin's heyday, and certainly now under Putin. Such essential resources as the Politburo, General Staff, or KGB files have never been accessible. Many momentous decisions were never recorded on paper anyway, or were documented in order to conceal the facts rather than to reflect them. Therefore, the kind of criticism that is now being leveled at our findings – namely, that the critics found no basis for them in Soviet archives – is not merely fallacious. It is also disturbingly dangerous, because it implicitly admits the Orwellian nightmare whereby the absence, prostitution, or suppression of archival evidence can and should be allowed to excise entire chapters from history. We found, incidentally, that in respect of the 1967 war, its nuclear context, and the Soviet role, this is true of US and Israeli declassification policy, too -- though perhaps to a lesser extent.
Ginor: Of course, the lack of official documentation cannot constitute proof positive that anything did occur. The burden of proof still rests on us. Fortunately, we also could fall back on several other reservoirs of information. One was the vast literature that has developed in the former USSR of veterans’ and other participants’ reminiscences, publications and research. It must be treated with the same precautionary measures as any other sources, but we found that it is no more tainted with vested-interest bias than the memoirs of Western, Israeli and Arab actors that have long populated the footnotes of conventional scholarship.
What these constraints do dictate is a departure from the practice of formulating a grand theory of Soviet doctrine, and then imposing it as a touchstone for testing the veracity of factual reports. What we attempted was the opposite: to assemble as many as we could of such factual components into a picture of what the USSR actually did. If this picture does not conform to the theoretical concept, we leave it to greater minds to reassess the concept. This approach is discussed fully in the first chapter of Foxbats, which is accessible on the Yale University Press website.
FP: So how does your depiction of the Soviet role in the crisis and war of 1967 differ from the conventional narrative in Western historiography?
Ginor: The prevalent orthodoxy held that although the Soviet Union did spark the crisis with those false accusations that Israel was massing troops to attack Syria, this was merely a routine disinformation exercise that got out of hand, due to miscalculation or error. 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. This conventional narrative held that the Soviet leadership, scarred by its setback in the Cuban missile adventure and moving toward détente, had by 1967 evolved a cautious and responsible foreign policy. Although it was still competing with Washington for influence worldwide and in the Middle East, risking a head-on clash between the nuclear superpowers was out of the question, no matter how high the regional stakes. Therefore, when the Soviets did threaten military action -- as Prime Minister Alexei Kosygin did over the hotline to Washington on 10 June -- this was empty bluster, or at most an attempt at deterrence.
Remez: We do not blame earlier generations of Sovietologists for arriving at this interpretation. Nearly all they had to work with was official Soviet statements and press reports -- in other words, propaganda. Once the Soviet plan ended in fiasco, it was very effectively covered up, an effort in which the United States and Israel effectively cooperated for their own reasons. But the better scholars always hedged their definitions of Soviet policy with such modifiers as "apparently," and we believe that the time has now come for a thorough reappraisal based on evidence that for the most part was uhnknown, and in some cases was disregarded.
FP: So why did this grand Soviet design not play itself out?
Remez: One hardly needs to tell American readers, four years into the Iraqi war, how even the best-laid plans of a superpower can go terribly wrong, and for what perennially recurring reasons. The Soviets correctly predicted not only that the Israelis would be drawn into striking first, and that the US would consequently, as it had warned, declare neutrality and withdraw is fleet from the eastern Med. They even knew or figured out the date of the Israeli strike. But as at many other points in this narrative, their Russian-scale concepts were completely out of line with Middle Eastern reality. When they contemplated an Israeli offensive, what they evidently had in mind was a World War II-style land offensive across a broad front. They did not foresee the character and devastating effect of Israel’s strike at Arab air bases, which made their use by Soviet planes impossible, and without air superiority the calculated risk of the original plan became intolerable.
Ginor: Egypt’s belated acknowledgment that its plight was desperate also contributed to the Politburo’s five days of dithering whether to act as planned at any price. On the sixth day, when Israel finally responded to Syrian bombardment of its northeastern settlements and attacked the Golan Heights, what the Soviet planned as a surprise operation to be implemented in order to defeat Israel was activated openly, this time really as a deterrent threat over the hot line – and with some success. The Soviet landing force was sent in toward its planned bridgeheads, but Moscow's preferred outcome was now what actually happened: within two hours, Israel stopped dragging its feet on a ceasefire, and the Soviet operation was aborted within less than a hour's sail from its target.
FP: How did you two become acquainted to one another?
Remez: On the job, but by a stroke of luck or destiny. In 1989, the world-shaking events in the Eastern Bloc were the top news story, and on 3 January I went to cover a conference of prominent experts that was held at the Hebrew University. In order to record the lectures for my program. I took a seat in the middle of the front row. But I had worked very late the night before, and kept dozing off. When my snoring reached offensive volume, the unfamiliar lady seated at my left had to jab me in the ribs with her elbow, while struggling to muffle her own laughter. That created a measure of intimacy, and as we were both single we went for lunch together. She turned out to be a heavyweight colleague who, unlike myself, also spoke native Russian.
Ginor: We began a highly acclaimed co-production of telephone interviews with Soviet dissidents and other figures, which at the time was already possible but still very difficult. The nights that we spent together on this project soon developed into what Gideon's team at the radio dubbed with the title of a contemporary Israeli bestseller, "A Russian Romance." Ten years later, that chance encounter with the sea-captain's story paved the way for us from journalism to academic research. We have been extraordinarily fortunate. The happy combination of a personal and professional partnership has brightened our lives to this day -- especially our two joint children, who are now in high school.
FP: Isabella Ginor and Gideon Remez, thank you for joining Frontpage Interview.
Ginor: Thank you! We hope that among your readers, there may be some who had a role in this drama and can add new information.
Remez: Yes, this is very much a work in progress and we are grateful to Frontpage for the opportunity to spread the word.