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RUSSIA AND A NUCLEAR MIDDLE EAST Print E-mail
By Jay Bushinsky
July 2, 2007

JERUSALEM -- Israel's nuclear policy is like the popular Hebrew expression about wearing a bikini -- 'to go around as if you have one on and feel as if you don't.'

Since the first reports appeared in the international news media 50 years ago that the Jewish state was producing atomic bombs with its nuclear reactor deep in the Negev desert, this purported and highly-credible capability has never won official confirmation here.

But what began as a clever attempt to keep Israel's enemies guessing quickly mushroomed into an international controversy capped by the refusal of successive governments to sign the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, American concern about an unwanted member of the nuclear club, Soviet suspicion of Israeli collusion with NATO and the West and Egyptian protests against an alleged premeditated violation of the regional balance of power.
 
The diplomatic and military consequences of Israel manufacturing strategic weapons, initially with the active assistance of its then-closest ally, France, have been depicted by two intrepid Israeli researchers, Isabela Ginor and Gideon Remez (a husband-and-wife team).  They see it as a contributing cause of the Six-Day War 40 years ago.
 
In their newly-published book, "Foxbats over Dimona," Ginor and Remez contend that the former USSR provoked the conflict between Israel, Egypt, Syria and Jordan as a cover for its scheme to bomb the Dimona facility by means of bombers repainted with Egyptian air force colors.  The planes were to have taken off from an advanced air force base in the Soviet Crimea.  It has just been published by Yale University Press, New Haven and London.
 
The prelude to this projected operation was the hitherto-unpublicized dispatch of MiG-25 jets, also known as Foxbats in NATO parlance, on reconnaissance flights over Dimona, hence the book's title.  The MiG-25 was the newest and most sophisticated warplane in the Soviet inventory at the time, so new that it had not yet gone into mass production and which was available only as prototypes.  There were two such flights, each including at least one Foxbat.  
 
These missions, which occurred shortly before the outbreak of war, June 5, 1967, would have been followed by bombing runs to have been carried out while the fighting was at its peak on Israel's southern front.  Fortunately for Israel's military strategists, the phenomenal success of their preemptive strike that took the three Arab states completely by surprise made the Soviets abort.  The Israeli air raids knocked out all of Egypt's air force bases and the swift and victorious end of the fighting five days later eliminated the operational backdrop which the Soviets had intended to use.
 
Israel has been paying a very high diplomatic price for its audacity in allegedly going nuclear.  The impetus for its decision in the early 1950's to go this route is attributed to its first prime minister, the late David Ben-Gurion.

He is said to have maintained that the catastrophe that befell the Jewish people during the Nazi Holocaust in which six million Jews were killed -- a third of the world's Jewish population -- made it mandatory that the new Jewish state that had emerged (belatedly) after World War II have the ultimate defensive capability.
 
Inside his cabinet, Ben-Gurion had to overcome powerful criticism and adamant protest from left-wing and centrist ministers.  Ganor and Remez quote this exchange between him and then-Justice Minister Pinhas Rosen, head of the middle-of-the road Progressive party: "Minister P. Rosen - This matter is giving me no peace of mind.  If we ever decided, or almost decided to take any steps here toward creating atomic energy for purposes of war, I do not know what is liable to happen.
        
"Prime Minister D. Ben-Gurion - Atomic energy for purposes of peace.  I request that you do not repeat your remark. "Minister P. Rosen - I am very much afraid that we here may become such a country that Russia will have to want to eradicate us..."
 
In 1960, when President John F. Kennedy wanted to redirect American foreign policy toward a more sympathetic and supportive approach toward Israel (JFK was the first chief executive to authorize the sale of conventional weapons to the Jewish state) he was deterred by Israel's refusal to allow international inspection of its Dimona Nuclear
Research Center.  JFK eventually reconciled with Israel's attitude and authorized the shipment of Hawk missiles to this country.  Ironically, they reportedly were and still are used to protect the Dimona site.
 
JFK's intense displeasure at the time is brilliantly cited in "Support Any Friend; Kennedy's Middle East and the Making of the U.S.-Israel Alliance" (Oxford University Press, New York, 2003).  Bass goes into great detail about how the President agonized over this issue.
 
According to Ganor and Remez, who pored over newly-accessible documents in Moscow's official archives, the Soviets suspected that the U.S. actually was in collusion with Israel to the extent that Israeli nuclear capability would close the strategic gap between NATO in the West and CENTO (the Central Treaty organization) in the Middle East by ringing the USSR with strategic weapons.
 
They describe the Soviet attitude as a virtual obsession that was totally aloof from the geographical fact that Israel (with a population of barely three million at the time on a tiny segment of the Mediterranean littoral) was a pigmy compared to the USSR, a territorial giant inhabited by 240 million people.  What evidently mattered to the Kremlin was relative military strength, not demographic statistics.
 
Obviously, the issues with which Ganor and Remez deal must be of great interest to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran.  He resents the notion that Israel should have nuclear primacy in the Middle East rather than Iran.  Therefore, he has indicated that Iran under his leadership would use the ultimate in military power to eliminate the presumed Israeli capability and Israel along with it.  To that extent, Iran's theological fanatics have taken a leaf out of the Soviet book.  

This makes one wonder if the USSR's role in enabling Iran to go nuclear was not an ominous extension of the policy Moscow pursued unsuccessfully in the 1950's and 1960's, culminating in President Richard Nixon's call for a nuclear alert during the watershed Yom Kippur War of October, 1973.
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