Foxbats over Dimona: The Soviets’ Nuclear Gamble in the Six-Day War

foxbats_over_dimonaFoxbats over Dimona: The Soviets’ Nuclear Gamble in the Six-Day War, (2007) Isabella Ginor and Gideon Remez (New Haven and London: Yale University Press) 287p. 

Reviewed by Mark T. Clark, Ph.D., Professor of Political Science, Director of the National Security Studies program, California State University, San Bernardino, Director of the CSU Intelligence Community Center of Academic Excellence

Could the Soviets have provoked the 1967 Six-Day War between Israel and Egypt in order to destroy Israel’s nascent nuclear program?  This is the provocative thesis Isabella Ginor and Gideon Remez have set forth in their book, Foxbats over Dimona,which argues—contrary to conventional historiography—that the Soviets may have carelessly provoked the war by baselessly charging the Israelis with preparing for war against Syria and Egypt, despite acting to constrain their Arab clients once war began. Ginor and Remez demonstrate conclusively that this interpretation has more to do with holding to certain assumptions than in attending to all the details that have become available through careful research, interviews, some archival work, and unintended admissions by Soviet officials and participants in the war.

That is not to say that all previous history of the Six-Day war is incorrect. On the contrary, much of it is rich and useful for most, if not all, the details of that war. However, Ginor and Remez bring to the table new insights on the Soviet role in instigating that war and a profound challenge to the conventional wisdom on Soviet behavior during it. Only because Israel successfully decapitated the Egyptian air force on the ground, stunning them with the timing, audacity, and completeness of the attack, did the Soviets begin to act with circumspection and restraint, and only then to cover their involvement and minimize their losses.

The authors’ central point is reinforced by showing how the Soviets carefully deployed a then-unknown weapon to Egypt to conduct reconnaissance flights over Dimona.  That weapon, the brand-new Mig 25, was subsequently designated Foxbat by NATO. The Mig 25 Foxbat was invulnerable to Israeli fighters and air defense systems and was deployed before and during the crisis with impunity. Not until the Israelis purchased the U.S. F-15, which was developed later to counter the Mig 25, were they able to take on the Foxbat. Furthermore, the authors have found substantial evidence that the Soviets prepared forces for amphibious landings on the Israeli shores and had readied strategic bombers and nuclear-armed naval forces to support the effort. In fact, Soviet preparations for such actions—including diplomatic cover—preceded the outbreak of the war.

Though the book is now over a year old, new insights and accounts support the main arguments of the authors that not only did the Soviets not constrain their Arab clients, but encouraged them by promising intervention on their behalf. The authors have published a very good article recently updating their findings here.

The authors show that little direct evidence can be found in the traditional archival sources, primarily because of how the highest levels of Soviet decision-making occurred. Soviet leaders purposefully avoided documenting their decision-making process on their involvement and goals in the war—a process Soviet leaders held close to the vest. Whenever Soviet officials in the know talked about contemplated actions, they couched them in terms of what the Israelis or the “imperialists” would do. Interpreters of Soviet behavior during the Cold War experienced a similar problem, one of mirror-imaging, where they filled in missing information and motives with what they would have done were they in Soviet shoes.

The evidence the authors amass is compelling, if not complete, because so much of it is unwritten but also because of the challenge the authors pose to standard western historiography, particularly of the Soviet Union. It is always an uphill battle for revisionist history, but particularly when so many professionals in government and the academy have become wedded to a standard interpretation. Much of western, particularly U.S., deterrence theory held to a similar rational-actor assumption of Soviet behavior throughout the Cold War and few dissidents from that “mainstream” view were and are tolerated, even today. But the evidence the authors nonetheless found is sufficient to force a reexamination of the standard literature.

The book should become standard reading not only on the Six-Day War, but for Middle East history as well. Because the authors’ thesis is narrowed to the Soviet role and revises that standard interpretation, it will likely be read only as a companion to other works that purport to show the whole story on the Six-Day War. However, in addition to the value this text brings to our understanding of Soviet behavior during that war, it also challenges us to consider how we interpret other actors today. That is, do we still adhere to our assumptions about how and why state leaders behave despite evidence to the contrary?  The evidence amassed in Foxbats over Dimonapresents an excellent starting point from which to begin that discussion.

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