Review of “The Soviet-Israeli War 1967-1973: The USSR’s Military Intervention in the Egyptian-Israeli Conflict” by Isabella Ginor and Gideon Remez

tags: book review, The Soviet Israeli War 1967 1973, Isabella Ginor, Gideon Remez

Mr. Briley is faculty emeritus at Sandia Preparatory School and HNN’s senior book editor.

Isabella Ginor and Gideon Remez, Israeli journalists, associate fellows of the Truman Institute at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and authors of Foxbats over Dimona: The Soviet Nuclear Gamble in the Six-Day War (2007), are back with another scholarly volume challenging the conventional wisdom regarding the role of the Soviet Union in the Middle East. In their previous volume Foxbats over Dimona, the Israeli scholars provoked considerable controversy by arguing that the Soviet Union orchestrated the 1967 Arab-Israeli War to curtail the emerging Israeli nuclear program. With their latest volume focusing upon the period between the 1967 Six-Day War and 1973 Yom Kippur War, perhaps best characterized by the bloody War of Attrition between Israel and Egypt from 1967 to 1970, the authors again insist that the Soviets pursued a more aggressive military posture in the Middle East than has been acknowledged by historians of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The conventional scholarly opinion suggests that the Soviets exercised a degree of restraint upon their Arab clients such as Egypt, for an expanded conflict in the Middle East would endanger larger Soviet designs such as pursuing a policy of détente with the United States. Instead, Ginor and Remez maintain that a significant Soviet military presence encouraged their Arab allies to take an aggressive stance toward Israel. According to Ginor and Remez, Soviet leaders drew parallels between the June 1967 defeat of Arab armies backed by the USSR with the lack of preparation for the June 1941 invasion of the Soviet state by Nazi Germany. The authors conclude that this comparison by Soviet leaders “reflected an almost instinctive Soviet response to regroup and counterattack, as a linear continuation of the June war rather than a new and distinct chapter” (4). Thus, the War of Attrition was encouraged by active Soviet military involvement, while the much touted expulsion of Soviet military personnel from Egypt by President Anwar Sadat in July 1972 was a great deception engineered by the Soviets who remained in the Arab country and continued to exercise considerable control over military policy. The authors reach this controversial conclusion by rejecting traditional sources and relying upon the accounts of Soviet soldiers who fought in the Egyptian-Israeli conflict.

Ginor and Remez challenge what they term “the tyranny of vested-interest sources” such as newspaper accounts and memoirs upon which traditional scholars rely and misrepresent the Soviet influence within Egypt. For example, they argue that many prominent Western newspapers failed to maintain a consistent press presence in Cairo and thus failed to report upon the Soviet military actions in Egypt. Ginor and Remez also criticize scholars for their dependence upon what the authors identify as the self-serving and misleading memoirs of Henry Kissinger who served as Richard Nixon’s National Security Adviser and Secretary of State. The authors also question whether archival evidence will reveal the extent of Soviet military intervention as many essential American documents remain classified, while the early declassification of Soviet documents following the fall of the USSR has been replaced with renewed secrecy. And the authors further argue that major Soviet decisions were often determined by informal and undocumented meetings. This interrogation of traditional diplomatic history sources leads Ginor and Remez to rely upon Soviet veteran narratives, a primary source ignored by most historians.

Beginning with the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, which is often referred to as a disillusioning experience similar to that suffered by the United States in Vietnam, Soviet veterans and their families have demanded that their sacrifices be acknowledged by the Russian media and government. These veteran groups also extend to the Soviet military intervention in Egypt, lobbying for recognition of the significant role played by USSR military personnel in the conflict. Ginor and Remez assert that numerous organizations and websites have been established in Russia that document the experience of veterans who served in Egypt. The authors maintain that an extensive investigation of these veteran accounts, corroborated by interviews, offer ample proof that the Soviet military presence in Egypt was far larger than is generally acknowledged.

Ginor and Remez observe that with the return to autocracy in Russia under the leadership of Vladimir Putin, there has been a renewed effort to censor the veteran narratives and enforce non-disclosure documents signed by former military personnel. In more recent years, therefore, Ginor and Remez confess that for their cultural historiography they have been forced to depend more on supposedly fictional accounts such as war novels composed by Soviet veterans, but they defend this approach by insisting that such “fiction” sources have been examined with great rigor to assure authenticity. While the methodology employed by Ginor and Remez is criticized by many established scholars of the Arab-Israeli conflict, the authors conclude that their work “has brought us a step closer to fuller and deeper comprehension of the long-past chapter in our own lives that we have relived vicariously through the eyes of our sources/protagonists” (xxxi).

The historiographical debate between the authors and their critics might appear to some readers as a rather pedantic academic discourse that has little relevance today beyond a small number of scholars. However, the expansionist foreign policy of Putin seeking to restore the status of Russia as one of the great powers after the demise of the Soviet Union makes the legacy of the Soviet Union in the Middle East a most relevant topic. Under Putin, Russia has annexed Crimea, intervened in the Ukraine, and threatened its neighbors, while propping up the brutal Assad dictatorship in Syria and moving closer to Iran.

Ginor and Remez conclude The Soviet-Israeli War by writing, “How post-Soviet Russia, especially under Putin, moved to reclaim its standing as a Middle-Eastern power, by backing ‘traditional allies’ such as Syria and the Palestinians, fostering new ones (like Iran), mending fences with erstwhile clients like Egypt and-not least-by maximizing its nuisance value against US hegemony was the focus of our journalistic work for years, and merits yet another book. Suffice it for now to say that the sense of déjà vu is overpowering” (360). While scholars may quibble over whether Ginor and Remez sufficiently document their argument for the expanded role of the Soviet Union in Egyptian affairs, the contemporary ambitions of Putin and Russia in the Middle East are troubling and a cause of concern to which Ginor and Remez correctly draw our attention.

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