The Iron Curtain Torn by Israel

Guy Laron. History Today. Volume 67, Issue 5, May 2017.

Two long-nosed Vautour planes took of from Ramat David airfield in northern Israel on the morning of June 5th, 1967. Each was carrying a French-made electronic system that would decide the fate of the impending clash between Arabs and Jews. The aircraft flew south, towards Egypt, and soared upwards when they reached Port Said. Travelling up and down the Suez Canal, the electronic devices installed in the Vautours delivered a sustained signal that had a dramatic effect. Below them, Egyptian radar operators and anti-aircraft batteries found, to their amazement, that their screens had gone blank. Israeli Dakota and Stratocruiser aircraft flying nearby monitored the activity of the Egyptian radar stations. When it was clear that they were down, the go-ahead was given. Wave after wave of Israeli bombers descended upon Egypt’s military airfelds. The Israeli aircraft flew at low altitude, releasing their bombs over the enemy runways. Once these were destroyed, the planes came back for another sortie, using their cannon to blow the Egyptian, Soviet-built, MiGs to smithereens. In total, 286 of Egypt’s 420 aircraft were destroyed that day. Israeli pilots proceeded to destroy the Jordanian, Syrian and Iraqi air forces. The defeat of the Arab armies that followed was swift and devastating.

The opening salvo of the June 1967 war between Israel and its Arab neighbours was a replica of an aerial manoeuvre that the French air force had designed to initiate battle with the forces of the Warsaw Pact. The Mirage IV, manufactured between 1963 and 1966, was designed to fly at low altitude to evade Soviet radar and to drop tactical nuclear bombs. A special parachute was devised and attached to each bomb to slow down its rate of descent and to make sure it would not bounce when hitting the ground. The Israeli bombs dropped on the Egyptian runways were equipped with the same device. The Mirage IV was to be used as the spearhead of the French force de frappe, or ‘strike force’. That was the nickname of the French air armada that was to sneak its way into the Soviet air space and destroy the enemy before the war had begun.

Operation Focus, the code name of the plan executed by Israel on June 5th, 1967, set French technology against Soviet materiel. The entire fleet of Israel’s air force was French-made; the aerial defence systems employed by the Egyptians were made in the Soviet Union. The French hardware performed splendidly, while Soviet weapons failed utterly. To Cold War minds, the implication was clear. What had happened in the Middle East could happen in Europe. The rout of the Arabs anticipated a Soviet defeat.

Young Turks

The first Russian to raise concern was Nikolai Yegorychev, party boss of the Moscow region. The occasion was a meeting of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, attended by 400 people, which took place in the Sverdlov Hall of the Grand Kremlin Palace two weeks after the Six Day War had ended. Leonid Brezhnev, party chairman, opened the debate with a long, programmatic speech in which he expanded on the policies that the Soviet Union had implemented vis-à-vis Israel and the US to mitigate the Arab defeat. After Brezhnev had ended his tour d’horizon, the floor was open for discussion. Third to speak was the handsome, fair-haired Yegorychev.

Besides holding a powerful position, Yegorychev was part of a group of Young Turks known as the Komsomoltsi, because they had started their career in the Communist Party’s youth movement, the Komsomol. They had been groomed for leadership by Nikita Khrushchev, party chairman between 1953 and 1964. Led by Alexander Shelepin, former head of the KGB and a major player within the party, the Komsomoltsi betrayed Khrushchev’s trust and joined hands with his Kremlin foes to oust him. For them, Brezhnev, the man who had replaced Khrushchev, was a dull apparatchik, a mere place-holder.

Yegorychev knew Brezhnev and did not think much of him. In the days when both men were scheming to remove Khrushchev, Yegorychev had seen Brezhnev weep uncontrollably when he thought that their plot was about to be uncovered. Earlier, in April of 1966, in a public speech, Yegorychev allowed himself to criticise Brezhnev for encouraging a Stalin-like cult of personality and for failing to adopt much-needed economic reforms. Yegorychev was about to sharpen his attack at the Central Committee’s meeting in June of 1967. His speech took place around noon. Yegorychev lambasted Brezhnev once more for shameless self-promotion, which he described as a ‘deformed phenomenon’.

A Very Dangerous Situation

Yegorychev went on to assail the implementation of Soviet policies in the Middle East. He complained that ‘some of our allies often behave in a very dangerous and reckless manner. This includes President Nasser’s irresponsible announcement that the Arabs will never accept the existence of Israel and the announcement, on Radio Cairo on the first day of the war, that “now the Egyptian people would deal Israel its final death-blow”.’ Yegorychev warned that such careless conduct ‘could bring the world to a very dangerous situation’. Regional crises such as the one that had erupted in the Middle East could initiate a superpower confrontation. Was the Soviet Union up to it?

Under Brezhnev, the Soviet Union had placed a big bet on anti-aircraft missiles and radar systems. Billions of roubles were invested in the protection of Soviet air space. Casting doubt on the success of these efforts would raise Brezhnev’s ire, but that was exactly what Yegorychev was about to do. ‘As a member of the Military Council of the Moscow district’, Yegorychev told the Central Committee:

I am most concerned about the fact that the anti-aircraft defence of the capital is not sufficiently reliable. The existing system is becoming outdated; its modernisation is not producing the desired effect. And as for setting up a new system, the process has been drawn out for too long.

Everybody in the hall knew that these words were a direct challenge to Brezhnev, whose hold on power was not yet firm. The accusation that he had failed to take care of national security could rally those party elements which opposed him.

No one knew if this was a cue for a new Kremlin coup, like the one that had deposed Khrushchev just three years before. Were Shelepin and his band of Komsomoltsi about to make a move? Was Yegorychev speaking on their behalf or was he acting on his own? The hall was rapt and silent as he upped the ante:

It might be the right time for implementing the line adopted by the October 1964 Plenum and to hear in one of the next sessions—behind closed doors—a report on the state of the country’s defences.

Most of the audience interpreted this as a call to place the Politburo under the supervision of the Central Committee. This was unprecedented. National security had previously been discussed only within the intimate forum of the Politburo.

As Yegorychev came down from the podium, the hall thundered with applause. The next three speakers, who did not know whether Yegorychev had cleared his speech with Brezhnev, did not dare to address his accusations. As the meeting adjourned, Shelepin, whose ruthlessness had earned him the nickname ‘Iron Shurik’, left the auditorium with a Politburo member, Gennady Voronov. ‘[Shelepin] told me’, Voronov recalled, ‘that was some speech, Gennady Ivanovich, wasn’t it?’ I said: ‘It is quite worthy.’ When Voronov looked over his shoulder, he was stunned to see Brezhnev himself shadowing them, eavesdropping on their conversation.

Wonderful! Leninist!

It was not just Shelepin and Voronov who were pleased by Yegorychev’s defiance. Anastas Mikoyan, who was forced by Brezhnev to resign from the Politburo for siding with Khrushchev back in 1964, raised a toast to Yegorychev’s health during a dinner soon after, calling his speech ‘wonderful! Leninist!’. Mikoyan understood what was at stake. In early 1966, people from the Shelepin camp contacted Mikoyan. They asked him to join them in the struggle to wrestle control of the party from Brezhnev. Mikoyan responded by saying that he had no interest in defending Brezhnev. In Mikoyan’s view, however, the correct move for the Komsomoltsi would be to present an elaborate programme at a Central Committee meeting. He would then decide whether to support them. What Yegorychev had done, on June 20th, could be interpreted as a response to Mikoyan’s request.

Brezhnev and Yegorychev had an uneasy conversation that night. Brezhnev said: ‘You know, Kol [a diminutive of Nikolai], the military men say you are not supposed to have this technical knowledge.’ Yegorychev shot back: ‘You know what, Leonid Ilich, your military men, when you start to talk with them, they piss in their pants so much it reaches my own pocket.’ Brezhnev said: ‘Look, Kol, I will not raise the question of forcing you out of the Central Committee.’ Yegorychev argued that Brezhnev had no reason to do so, since he had not broken any law or argued against the party’s decisions. Brezhnev did not like that answer and said: ‘We said it and we would expel you!’ Yegorychev told Brezhnev that in that case, he would have to fight back. Brezhnev immediately retreated: ‘You misunderstood me. I like you very much.’

Brezhnev was lying. The lights were on until late at party headquarters in Moscow’s Old Square, as Brezhnev and his allies thought about the best way to respond to the threat that the Komsomoltsi posed. Preparations for an attack on Yegorychev continued through the night. Dmitry Ustinov, first secretary of the Central Committee and a Brezhnev loyalist, took control. Ustinov was in a combative mood and yelled: ‘We will turn that Yegorychev into dust!’ The Central Committee was to convene the next day and the Brezhnev camp prepared a political ambush.

The first to the podium the following morning was Sharaf Rashidov, secretary of the Uzbek Communist Party, who said: ‘Nikolai Gregorovitch [Yegorychev], the air defence system does not begin in Moscow, but in Tashkent.’ This argument—that Moscow’s shield lay on the frontiers of the Soviet Union—was repeated by the first secretaries of Georgia and Azerbaijan. All the speakers tried to portray Yegorychev as a fool who understood nothing about aerial defence. Their attack was so fierce that Yegorychev had to ask for permission to respond. Once it had been given, Yegorychev apologised for doubting the efforts that Brezhnev and the Politburo were investing in defending the motherland. Next came Brezhnev’s speech. The chairman devoted his long oration, which ran for over 30 pages, to fierce criticism of Yegorychev. The crowd was well prepared. His argument was supported by cries from the audience, such as ‘correct!’ and ‘very good!’. When Brezhnev reproached Yegorychev for never attending meetings of the Higher Defence Council, someone shouted ‘shame!’.

A few weeks later, Yegorychev was removed from his position as the first secretary of the Moscow region. He was appointed deputy minister for tractors and agricultural machinery, clearly a demotion. Thus ended the attempt to use the debacle in the Middle East to effect a change of leadership in the Kremlin. However, unease and self-doubt continued to spread among its Warsaw Pact allies.

During the first days of the Six Day War, panic hit the streets of Poland. A secret services memo reported that ‘in Warsaw the supply to shops of grocery articles increased from 300 to 1,550 tons daily; in Krakow sales increased from 35 to 140 tons daily; four, in particular, rose from 10 to 80 tons; in Bialystok the sale of salt increased by 300 per cent, sugar by 200 per cent and four by 140 per cent. Withdrawals from PKO (the Polish Savings Bank) savings accounts were greater than normal’.

Right to Exist

Many East Europeans greeted the humiliation suffered by the Arabs with schadenfreude. A poll conducted by Radio Free Europe among 700 East European tourists visiting western countries, found that a majority of East Europeans supported Israel. This was not due to a sudden wave of philo-semitic sentiment. Antisemitism was still prevalent: a popular joke on the streets of Warsaw maintained that ‘Jojne poszedl na wojne’ (the cowardly Jew went to war). Rather, it was a case of ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’. Identifying with Israel and its victory was a way of venting anti-Soviet and anti-Communist sentiments. In Poland, where the Catholic Church had been the spearhead of the anti-Communist opposition, prominent cardinals condemned the regime for its one-sided support of the Arabs. They also emphasised the right of the Jewish state to exist and equated Gamal Abd al-Nasser, the Egyptian president, with Hitler. Polish secret services believed they had discovered a plot. According to their sources, Jewish diplomats from the Austrian, British and US embassies were scheming with employees at the Israeli embassy to convince.

Polish society to support Israel. Worse still, the Poles noticed increased activity by western intelligence services. The entire network of NATO spies, a top-secret memo claimed, was put on high alert. Coded broadcasts were transmitted from a communication centre in Oslo, while one in Frankfurt communicated with four new agents. Polish eavesdroppers reported that NATO had instructed its agents to report urgently on any sign of increased military activity. An incorrect report from one of these agents, Polish analysts lamented, would have triggered a stand off between the forces of the Warsaw Pact and NATO. In a major speech at the end of June, Wladyslaw Gomulka, the Polish party chairman, underlined his concern: ‘We should be prepared for various surprises. Nuclear war is floating in the air since a situation has arisen inching the world to war.’

In Poland, the crisis in the Middle East was used to settle scores. Gomulka had been struggling against reformists, led by Jewish activists. A shrewd politician, he decided to employ xenophobia to entrench his hold on power. In late June, he declared publicly that it was ‘justified to act against seeds of a “fifth column”‘, adding: ‘We cannot remain indifferent towards people … who support the aggressor [in the Six Day War].’ Gomulka suggested that ‘those who feel that these words are addressed to them’ should emigrate. In the coming months, officials in the ministry of the interior were all too happy to produce reports arguing that Poland had been the victim of a worldwide Zionist conspiracy seeking to use the Jewish community in Poland as a fifth column. At the time, there were just 25,000 Jews among Poland’s 32 million inhabitants. The younger ones were going through a speedy process of assimilation and had prominent positions within the party and the government.

Polish Purge

During the next 18 months, 51 Jews were purged from the party and 150 Jewish officers were dismissed from the army, among them three generals and the commander of the air force. One lost his position because it had been rumoured that his wife was Jewish. Non-Jewish officers in the Polish army participated in meetings that ‘demanded the removal of all two-faced, duplicitous individuals from positions in the state and military apparatus’. A Polish student, arrested by the secret police in February 1968, reported that his interrogators had asked him: ‘Do you understand that we Poles must finally make our voices heard, because as long as Jews hold all the positions, Poles won’t be able to distinguish themselves.’ There were no purges of Jews on this scale in any other communist country.

In East Germany, most citizens did not buy the official line. According to a Stasi report on the reaction of the population to the crisis in the Middle East, many argued it did not matter that Israel fired the first shot. Nasser’s hatred for Israel, some East Germans said, and his decision to block the Straits of Tiran, which controlled the sea route between Israel and its main source of oil, Iran, had triggered the war. Others claimed that Nasser took this step as part of a plan to do away with the Jewish state and to turn himself into the leader of the Arab world. For the East Germans, the outcome of the war had been proof that the Soviet bloc was weaker than NATO. Disappointed by the one-sided coverage of the conflict by state television, many viewers turned to West German media. Some East German workers openly disobeyed instructions to sign solidarity petitions with Arab countries.

The East German government was worried, not only about public opinion but also about the military balance of power. A frontline state, East Germany could easily become a battleground. The Stasi became obsessed with ‘the radio deception’ that the Israelis had operated in Sinai. In August of 1967 the Stasi advised the East German air force to rethink its conception of anti-aircraft warfare. In particular, the Stasi recommended finding a solution to the challenge posed by low-flying aircraft and fix any gaps in radar coverage of its air space. The Stasi vowed to spy intensively on NATO to find out whether it was developing the same electronic techniques that the Israelis had used to such devastating effect.

A similar report, produced by the Bulgarian ministry of defence, was more pessimistic. Bulgaria’s border with Greece was wide open and there were not enough regular units to stop a Greek invasion. Bulgarian intelligence had no reliable human sources and, therefore, would not be able to alert the army ahead of a surprise attack. There were not enough anti-aircraft batteries to defend Bulgarian air fields and Soviet-made radar could not detect aircraft flying lower than 150 metres. The same report noted that the joint command of the Warsaw Pact’s Unified Armed Forces, located in Moscow, was incapable of coordinating the activity of East European armies.

Difficult Task

While dealing with his domestic rivals, Brezhnev had tried to convince his allies to present a united position. He phoned East European leaders daily during the Six Day War and updated them on the state of play. He even summoned them to an urgent conference in Moscow on the penultimate day of the conflict. Despite the fact that Red Army units were based throughout Eastern Europe, coordinating the response of Moscow’s allies proved to be a difficult task. Just a year before the dramatic events of the Prague Spring, the most important alliance in the communist world was showing signs of wear and tear.

Warsaw Pact summits had convened no less than three times during the latter half of 1967 to discuss the war. One would expect that ideology or strategy would be the core issues for discussion. In fact, what the Communist leaders talked about was money. Under Khrushchev, the Communist bloc had gambled heavily on the economic prospects on what was then called the Third World. It was believed at the time that Third World markets had an insatiable desire for Eastern European goods. By 1967 that assumption was questioned. A series of right-wing military coups had toppled pro-Soviet rulers in Indonesia, Congo and Algeria and had cast doubt on the project. Trade with developing countries never expanded to the extent the Soviets had hoped.

On one side of the divide stood East Germany, which was gung-ho about trade with the developing world and was successful in that respect: between 1960 and 1983 its trade with the developing world increased by more than 1,000 per cent. Moreover, a few years before the war in the Middle East, the East German government reached the conclusion that, by 1970, Soviet shipments of coal and oil would fail to satisfy its energy needs. As far back as 1965, East Germany had started planning the creation of a joint venture with companies in non-aligned Yugoslavia to import oil from Arab countries, in particular, Egypt and Iraq.

The Six Day War left the Arab world with a seething resentment against American support of Israel. Egypt severed its relations with Washington. This turn of events created a prime opportunity to deepen trade ties between the Middle East and Eastern Europe. East Germany was eager to exploit it, but it faced a serious problem. Most Arab countries did not recognise East Germany out of fear of Bonn’s response (the West Germans had vowed to sever relations with any country that recognised East Germany). Walter Ulbricht, East Germany’s leader, believed that the only way his country could overcome this hurdle was by teaming up with the rest of the Communist bloc. Ulbricht became the most forceful advocate of a coordinated response to the crisis in the Middle East. Aiding him was Josip Tito, Yugoslavia’s president, another firm believer in the beneficial effect of trading with the developing world.

Sceptical Satellites

Gomulka and János Kádár, the Hungarian party chairman, did not believe that their countries saw anything of value to buy from or sell to the Middle East and were opposed to the Soviet request that they should contribute to the effort of resuscitating the Arab armies. Antonín Novotný, president of Czechoslovakia, was similarly sceptical. During the 1950s and 1960s his country had been the spearhead of Soviet efforts to penetrate the developing world. Czechoslovakia sold armaments throughout Africa and the Middle East. By 1967, however, the Czechs had grown frustrated by developing countries’ inability to settle their debts. During a summit that took place in Warsaw in July 1967, all three had a chance to air their opinions. Gomulka maintained that:

Further military assistance [to Arab countries] is without purpose, as there are no people who can use such weapons. We cannot allow Soviet weapons to fall into the hands of Israel for the third time.

Kadar was no less scathing in his critique: ‘We gave [economic and military aid] to Ghana—it had failed. We gave to Indonesia—it had failed. We gave the Arab countries—it had failed too.’

Nicolae Ceauşescu’s Romania proved the most recalcitrant. Back in 1962, Khrushchev told the Romanians they should jettison their dreams of building their own heavy industry, such as that of Czechoslovakia or East Germany, and should satisfy themselves by supplying the Communist bloc with energy—Romania was endowed with gas and petroleum—and agricultural goods. That same year, Bucharest realised that Khrushchev’s brinkmanship in Cuba might have made it a target of a US attack. The Romanians vowed to take an independent position in the Cold War and diversify their trade partners. On the eve of the Six Day War, Romania signed an agreement of economic cooperation with Israel and gravitated toward Washington, seeking a ‘most favoured nation’ status from the Americans. As the Romanian prime minister, Ion Gheorghe Maurer, explained to the US secretary of state, Dean Rusk, on June 23rd:

Diversification of Romania’s economic relations is a guarantee of Romania’s independence and sovereignty. Romania’s independent economic development enables it to be master of its own house.

Romania refused to sever its relations with Israel. Likewise, Hungary sent as little in aid to Egypt as possible. The war in the Middle East illuminated the disunity in the Soviet bloc, the fear of its leaders that they were falling behind the West militarily and economically and the contempt that rank-and-file citizens had felt toward the Communist system. For the time being, all this remained hidden from the eyes of the West. Twenty years later, the same set of factors would bring about the downfall of Communism in Eastern Europe.