Chuvakin- AP
Soviet ambassador Chuvakin. Photo by AP
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It is customary to blame the Soviet Union for the Six-Day War. Israeli newspapers were doing so even during the days of tension that preceded the war; over the years some of the historical research internalized this thesis as well. It is based on, among other things, a warning that the Soviet Union delivered to Egypt on May 13, 1967, that Israel was planning to attack Syria. Two days later, Egypt began streaming military forces into Sinai, and three weeks later the war broke out.

A new study published in the journal Cold War History (published at the London School of Economics ) says the truth is that the Soviet Union wanted to prevent a war between Israel and the Arab states. As such, it demanded that the Syrians not encourage the activity of Palestinian terrorists, who frequently penetrated Israel through its border with Syria.

The study's author is Guy Laron, a lecturer in the international relations department of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. According to Laron, the source of the information that led the Soviets to warn the Arabs was in Israel: It is possible that someone in Israel leaked the matter to Soviet agents, so that the USSR would do just that.

Such channels of communication apparently existed; at any rate, the Russians believed that they did. On another occasion, for example, Soviet ambassador to Israel, Dmitri Chuvakin, reported information he claimed to have received from MK Moshe Sneh, leader of the Israel Communist Party. According to the ambassador, Sneh told him that someone on the staff of Prime Minister Levi Eshkol's office had disclosed to him that Israel was developing nuclear weapons. In Moscow the ambassador's report was interpreted as an Israeli attempt to send out "feelers," with an eye toward holding talks on this subject with the Soviet Union.

The warning regarding Israel's intention to attack Syria could have been interpreted in a similar vein. Either way, Laron states that the Soviet Union did not send that warning to the Egyptians with the object of fanning tensions, but rather of reducing them. In practice, the opposite occurred. From this Laron learns that the Soviets had less influence on Egypt and Syria than was thought.

It is hardly surprising that the Russians would try to prevent a war in the Middle East, Laron writes. The Soviet Union was focused at the time on efforts to improve its economic situation, and therefore was interested in defusing tensions with the United States. The Soviets likewise tried to restrain North Vietnam's actions against South Vietnam and the U.S., and in that case, too, they failed.

‘Egypt is ready’

In April of 1971, the Israeli ambassador to Washington, Yitzhak Rabin, received information from Jerusalem that “Egypt is ready for a full peace treaty with Israel based on the Rogers Plan.” William Rogers was then the U.S. secretary of state; under his plan, Israel would return Sinai to Egypt and the two countries would sign a peace treaty. The Yom Kippur War would have been avoided.

In his book “Pinkas Sherut” ‏(published in English translation as “The Rabin Memoirs”‏), Rabin wrote that he decided to bury that information and not pass it on to the Americans, so that the U.S. would not try to compel Israel to withdraw from Sinai. That may have been the most important revelation in Rabin’s book, published in Hebrew in 1979, but the nasty things Rabin wrote about Shimon Peres overshadowed it at the time.

A new book by the political scientist Uri Bar Yosef, of the University of Haifa, which Yossi Melman wrote about last week in Haaretz, has been subject to a similar fate: The focus of attention there is on an ancient feud between Eli Zeira, who was head of Israel’s Military Intelligence during the Yom Kippur War, and Zvi Zamir, then chief of the Mossad. That fight, however, overshadows a contention whose historical significance far outweighs it: The possibility that Egypt would make peace with Israel was not merely “an Israeli assessment,” as Rabin claimed in his book, but rather information that came from an Israeli agent right inside President Anwar Sadat’s office, Ashraf Marwan.

According to Bar Yosef, Prime Minister Golda Meir was “addicted” to the reports from “The Angel,” as Marwan was code named, and therefore also knew that Egypt’s president was not interested in the fate of the Palestinians, and was not conditioning peace with Israel on a withdrawal from the West Bank, but only on the return of Sinai. Beginning in June 1971, Marwan reported that Sadat had despaired of getting Sinai back without a war. Between then and Yom Kippur 1973, Meir had more than two and a half years in which to change his mind.

There may be no greater missed opportunity in the history of Israel.