Isabella Ginor And Gideon Remez Respond To Rolf Behrens’ Review Of Foxbats Over Dimona: The Soviets’ Nuclear Gamble In The Six-Day War

, December 24, 2008

Jewish Political Studies Review 20:3-4 (Fall 2008)


Letter to the Editor


Isabella Ginor And Gideon Remez Respond To Rolf Behrens’ Review Of Foxbats Over Dimona: The Soviets’ Nuclear Gamble In The Six-Day War  (Yale University Press, 2007).

Rolf Behrens’ review of our book Foxbats over Dimona in the Spring 2008 issue of  the JPSR[1] proves once again that a reviewer’s capacity and readiness to appreciate innovative research is often directly related to his/her own general knowledge. As Behrens correctly notes, our findings contradict conventional wisdom when we show that the Soviet Union deliberately instigated the Six-Day War, that it prepared and activated a massive direct intervention, and that the USSR’s motivation and timing were in large part determined by its perception that Israel was becoming a nuclear power.

Several distinguished scholars in different fields concur with our analysis. Sir Martin Gilbert stated “this book solves one of the great mysteries of the Six-Day War.”[2] Professor Mark N. Katz, a leading expert on Soviet Middle Eastern policy, admitted: “I was highly skeptical of these bold claims when I began reading the book. ‘Moscow made us do it’ seemed too neat an explanation for Israel’s actions in 1967. Long before reaching the book’s end, though, I became convinced that Ginor and Remez have gotten it right.”[3] Sir Lawrence Freedman, the eminent British military historian, after remarking “here is a book that is truly revisionist, challenging what we thought we knew about the origins and conduct of the Six-Day War,” went on to conclude: “meticulously using every snippet of relevant information from an extraordinary range of sources… Ginor and Remez have succeeded to the point where the onus is now on others to show why they are wrong.” [4]

Behrens endeavors to show why we are wrong, but he does not produce solid evidence to back up his description of our findings as “dubious claims.” His objections are so inaccurate or uninformed that they can only be described as unworthy of scholarly consideration. For the sake of brevity, we will only discuss two examples.

The first relates to Soviet pilot Aleksandr Vybornov, who stated on several occasions — not once, as Behrens writes — that he flew a MiG-25 “Foxbat” over Israel in 1967. Revealing this incident and identifying it with the flights over Israel’s nuclear facility in May ’67 was indeed central to our book’s main thrust. Even without all the other evidence we collected, the USSR’s initiation of these highly provocative flights at the height of the crisis is sufficient to dispose of the hitherto accepted notion that Moscow did its best to defuse the tension.

To establish that Vybornov’s undated presence in Egypt overlapped with the Dimona over-flights, we quoted his statement – also made on several occasions – that he witnessed an Israeli air raid on an Egyptian air base. We inferred from this that he was in Egypt by the start of the Six-Day War, when Israel destroyed the bulk of Egypt’s air bases and planes. Behrens attempts to refute this deduction by suggesting that Vybornov “might very well have witnessed an Israeli aerial attack in the opening phase of the War of Attrition.”

This supposition is not supported by the facts. There were no Israeli air raids on active Egyptian air bases during the War of Attrition. In fact, there was no Israeli air raid that would correspond to Vybornov’s description of massive destruction of Egyptian aircraft on the ground  at any time other than 5 June 1967. Thus, the only time Vybornov could have witnessed such a raid was on that date, the first day of the Six-Day War. Further, Vybornov explicitly sets his mission to Egypt in 1967, and states that it lasted three months.

There is no record of his returning to Egypt during the War of Attrition, which Nasser declared in March 1969 and when Vybornov had already been appointed to a desk job in Moscow. As stated in our book, it is common knowledge that despite the engine and other problems that Behrens mentions, the Soviets operated four MiG-25s out of Egypt over the Sinai and Israel in 1971-2 (thus after the ceasefire that ended the War of Attrition) and again during the Yom Kippur War. The pilots of this contingent were named, and Vybornov, who would have been the senior officer, is not among them.

Fortunately, the question of whether Soviet pilots could and did fly MiG-25 sorties over Israel in May 1967 has already been conclusively resolved  by an official confirmation from no less an authority than the chief spokesman of the Russian Air Force. As in several other cases cited in our book, the blackout that is still imposed on Soviet operations against Israel was lifted randomly, briefly and inadvertently in a completely different context. In October 2006 (after we completed our manuscript), the spokesman, Col. Aleksandr V. Drobyshevsky, posted an article on the official website of the Russian Defense Ministry to mark the anniversary of a school for test pilots. Listing the achievements of the school’s graduates, Drobyshevsky names one such pilot who “in 1967 … in Egypt … perform[ed] unique reconnaissance flights over the territory of Israel in a MiG-25RB aircraft.” Q.E.D.

It may seem picayune to thus dissect the minutae of Behrens’ objections but the only substantive (as distinct from theoretical) shortcomings that he finds in our argument pertain to details such as these. Because of the cover-up of the USSR’s role in the 1967 conflict, no direct or full Soviet documentation can be expected.  Accordingly, we needed to pool many such details from a multitude of sources and then “connect the dots.”

The second example is when Behrens casts doubt on our interpretation of the officially published Soviet document that ostensibly requested Finland to transmit “the original” of a 5 June protest note to Israel, even though diplomatic relations between the USSR and Israel were still intact and the note itself was, in fact, conveyed directly. We constructed a meticulous timetable to show that this document could only have been the result of Soviet preplanning for a diplomatic rupture on 5 June. The course of actual events delayed this contingency, so the letter was never used. Challenging our conclusion, Behrens suggests that it might merely represent a belated request to deliver the original note, because the contents were initially transmitted to Jerusalem by cable.

This alternative explanation is highly unlikely. Even if the Soviets had a motive to go through the motions for the record, as Behrens suggests, and the letter had actually been sent to the Finns along with the “original,” then it would have been dated, which indicates that it was never sent. Further, this document had to be significant, because the editors of a selection of Soviet Foreign Ministry papers included this item as one of the very few documents from the 1967 crisis they chose to publish (The Middle Eastern Conflict, v. II (1957-1967), p. 577). In this volume, the Finnish document (according to its place in the sequence) clearly, but wrongly, as we prove, refers to the initial delivery of the attached Soviet note.

So much for the prima facie improbability of Behrens’s suggestion, which  also ignores two facts presented in our book: 1) the Finnish Foreign Ministry denied to us that the 5 June note (or the cover letter to Finland) had ever been received in Helsinki; 2) up to 10 June, Soviet communications with Israel were handed directly to the Israeli Embassy in Moscow at the same time as their delivery via the Soviet Embassy in Israel, so that the “original” of the 5 June note (as he interprets the term) had also been delivered by 11 June when Finland took over as the USSR’s “protecting power” in Israel .

For all the reasons mentioned above, Behrens’ suggestion lacks substance. If this is the best argument he can muster to negate our interpretation of the “Finnish document,” our version and our claims should be able to withstand the harshest of scrutiny.

To our immense gratification, the publication of Foxbats over Dimona generated a lively public discussion in the former USSR and helped bring important new material to light, which in the overwhelming majority of cases confirms our claims and provides additional details. Some of this information was included in a wide-ranging investigative report by Viktor Baranets, the military correspondent of Komsomolskaya Pravda, and former General Staff officer. After duplicating several of our interviews and conducting some of his own,  Baranets summed up: “the time has apparently come to set the record straight. So far, the facts have often been replaced by inventions. No one can dispute the obvious: the USSR ‘orchestrated’ that war. … The USSR was prepared for an invasion of Israel. The confessions of our own officers prove this.”

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[1]  Volume 20 (1&2), 138-141.

[2] Sir Martin Gilbert, personal communication to the authors, 13 February 2007.

[3] Mark N. Katz, Review of Foxbats over Dimona, Middle East Journal, Winter 2008, Vol. 62 (1), 178-179.

[4] Sir Lawrence D. Freedman, Review of Foxbats over Dimona, Foreign Affairs, September/October 2007, Foreign Affairs also named Foxbats one of the five “outstanding new books” for that issue, and in April 2008 as one of the five “books of the year” on military topics.

Isabella Ginor

Isabella Ginor is a research fellow at the Truman Institute of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem