America’s relationship with Israel is not a one-way street. Israel’s very existence owes much to its superpower ally, from votes for the 1947 UN Palestine partition plan that allowed the birth of the state to the emergency airlift during the 1973 Yom Kippur War to facilitating this year’s breakthroughs in the acceptance of Israel by its Arab neighbors, not to mention, over the decades, billions of dollars in assistance, the sale of advanced weapons, and many vetoes of one-sided UN resolutions. Former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres liked to quip to American audiences that of the many countries that had supped at America’s table, Israel was “the only one that doesn’t resent you for it.” In truth, Israel has repaid its debt not only in the coin of gratitude and loyal friendship. The alliance, although not between equals, has payed handsome strategic benefits to America, too.
In a previous article for Commentary, I discussed Israel’s responsibility for keeping nuclear weapons out of the hands of the Middle East’s most retrograde actors.1 Another realm in which Israel played a critical part was the Cold War, where it contributed substantially to the West’s victory—a contribution that confounded expectations.
When the partition plan was before the UN, the U.S.–Soviet conflict was just taking form and, with it, competition for allies and influence. Secretary of State George C. Marshall, who had once been sympathetic to the Jewish cause, now urged that the U.S. oppose the motion. Supporting it, he said, would “go against the advice of all the [department’s] qualified experts.” Likewise, the predominant view of the military brass was that siding with a million Jews against 400 million Arabs made no strategic sense. So firmly did Marshall come to embrace this view that he threatened to oppose President Truman’s reelection if the U.S. vote were cast in favor (a threat on which he reneged, serving as secretary of defense in Truman’s second administration).
Truman’s motive in supporting the Zionists has been ascribed variously to high principle, electoral expediency, and close Jewish friends. Neither he nor the advocates for a Jewish state framed it in terms of geopolitics. But Israel turned out to be a major strategic asset.
U.S. diplomats and brass were not alone in failing to foresee this. Moscow did not anticipate it either. Hoping to drive Britain from the region, it was arguably even more helpful than Washington in facilitating Israel’s birth. This moment, however, was short-lived, ending abruptly on Rosh Hashanah of 1948.
That day, Golda Meir, Israel’s first ambassador to the USSR, attended services at Moscow’s Great Synagogue, one of the very few left open. Despite a pointed warning in Pravda that “the state of Israel has nothing to do with the Soviet Union, where there is no Jewish problem and therefore no need for Israel,” a crowd estimated at 50,000—25 times the usual attendance—was waiting to see and touch her. In her autobiography, Meir records how deeply she was affected by this display of identity with the Jewish state. But Stalin, who brooked no loyalty to anyone or anything other than himself or his regime, was affected, too, in a quite different way. Within a month, Jewish cultural institutions were closed, and soon various Yiddish actors and poets were murdered or dispatched to the Gulag. An anti-Jewish campaign in the name of anti-Zionism raged until the dictator’s death in 1953.
Israel, thus driven from its original stance of neutrality, got its first stroke of revenge in 1956 when a Pole who went by the non-Jewish name of Viktor Grayevsky managed to get his hands on a copy of the secret speech that Premier Nikita Khrushchev had delivered at the Soviet Communist Party’s 20th congress. It denounced Stalin for having created a “cult” of himself and for choosing “the path of repression and physical annihilation” against whomever raised his ire. Grayevski, quietly a Zionist, daringly brought the document to the Israeli Embassy in Warsaw where intelligence officers made a duplicate. Ben-Gurion ordered it passed to the CIA, which leaked it to the New York Times, which ran it on page 1.
The impact on the world Communist movement was shattering. The one-time Trotskyist leader Max Shachtman captured the import sardonically: “Stalin…has been officially demoted from the office of greatest, wisest and most adored leader in recorded history to the lesser office of maniacal mass-murderer.” For three decades, Communists worldwide had parroted hymns to Stalin’s glories, deriding what they saw as calumnies against him from anti-Communists of all stripes (as well as Trotskyists). Now Stalin’s successor, the new leader of world Communism, was saying plainly that the anti-Communists had been right all along and that the Communists had been dupes and fools. The American and other Communist parties never recovered from this blow.
This was just the first (known) of many Israeli intelligence coups that contributed to the victory of the West. In 1966, the Mossad’s Operation Diamond, as it was called, was crowned with success after three years of work. The “diamond” in a question was a late version of the MiG21, the mainstay of the Soviet air force. An Iraqi air-force pilot, suborned by the Mossad, took off in one from his airbase and landed in Israel, where Israeli and American experts could scrutinize every inch.
In 1970, during the “war of attrition” that raged along the Suez Canal cease-fire line for three years following the Six-Day War, an Israeli squad crossed the waterway and captured a recently installed Soviet air-defense radar, ferrying all seven tons of it back to Israel in two giant helicopters. It was eventually delivered to U.S. intelligence, as was all manner of other weaponry captured from Egypt and Syria in the wars of 1967 and 1973. In the 1982 war in Lebanon, Israel seized large quantities of weapons from the PLO and sold them to the Nicaraguan “Contras” fighting the Communist regime in their country. Later, when Congress cut off the aid that the Reagan administration was supplying to the Contras, there is some evidence that Israel helped fill the breach.
More important still than these operational coups was the ongoing sharing of intelligence, which Israeli agents were adept at gathering. Major General George F. Keegan, head of intelligence for the U.S. Air Force in the 1970s, put it:
The ability of the U.S. Air Force in particular, and the Army in general, to defend whatever position it has in NATO owes more to the Israeli intelligence input than it does to any other single source of intelligence, be it satellite reconnaissance, be it technology intercept, or what have you.
He added: “I could not have procured [this] intelligence with five C.I.A.s.”
INTELLIGENCE was not the most important Israeli contribution to Western defenses. Israel’s victories in 1967 and 1973 over foes who were mostly Soviet clients provided a psychological counterpoint to America’s consternation in Vietnam. That doomed struggle had generated an image of Western helplessness in the face of Communist and revolutionary forces rising around the world. But Israel’s dominance seemed to signify the superiority of its Western arms over the Soviet weaponry of the Arabs.
This boosted Western prestige, although the reality behind Israeli’s victories owed at least as much to the human factor as the equipment. A Rand Corporation analysis of the amazing outcome of the air war over Lebanon in 1982 observed that Israel boasted “superior equipment, tactics, and pilot proficiency.” The first part of this trio would not have counted so heavily without the other two aspects. In that engagement in Lebanese airspace, Israeli pilots downed 80-plus Syrian MiGs without losing any planes of their own, a feat never equaled, even by American pilots flying the same American aircraft that the Israelis used. Nor was this a matter of Arab ineptitude. Soviet pilots had no more success against the Israelis when the two squared off directly, as they did over the Suez Canal in 1970. Five MiGs went down while Israel suffered no losses.
The deterrence power that flowed from Israel’s military accomplishments also served Western interests. In 1970, King Hussein of Jordan, perhaps the region’s staunchest Western ally, went to war to oust the PLO, which had built a virtual state within a state, directly challenging his rule. When Syrian tanks crossed the border, preparing to join the battle in support of the PLO, Hussein appealed for help. Israel scrambled warplanes to overfly the Syrian tanks, and they quickly did a U-turn and returned to their own territory.
Israel’s strength turned George Marshall’s 1947 fear of alienating the Arab world on its head. Unable to best Israel, Egypt and to varying degrees most of the other Arabs, grew disillusioned with Soviet patronage. They began to look instead to the United States, for which Israel was taken to be a proxy, generating, as then Secretary of State Henry Kissinger put it, an “Arab perception that the key to a Middle East settlement lay in Washington, not in Moscow.”
Israel’s feats of arms reverberated within the Soviet bloc itself. In the satellite states, the David-and-Goliath outcome of 1967 nourished hopes that Russian supremacy was not beyond challenge. Michael Zantovsky, Vaclav Havel’s close confidant and biographer, recalls:
Many leading Czech intellectuals protested the severing of diplomatic relations with Israel. In particular at the (in)famous 4th Congress of the Czechoslovak Writers’ Union in July 1967, a number of speakers, most conspicuously the Slovak writer Ladislav Mňačko, condemned the government’s policy from the rostrum, something hitherto unheard of. The congress was one of the direct precursors of the Prague Spring.
In Poland, “thousands of Poles placed candles in their windows to commemorate the Israeli victories, not so much for love of Israel but because the Arabs were sponsored by the Soviets,” according to R. J. Crampton, a British scholar of the region. Months later, Interior Minister Mieczyslaw Moczar traveled to Moscow and soon after launched a ferocious campaign against “Zionist infiltration,” driving most of Poland’s remaining Jews, perhaps 20,000, from the country.
Hungary’s dictator, Janos Kadar, voiced alarm over the appearance of “an Israeli section” within the Communist Party itself. In a speech to the Politburo he complained that:
part of the Party membership… with considerable influence in certain areas, has behaved in a non-Communist manner. I don’t want to draw some kind of conclusion based on race, and I understand that it is not clear to everyone who is the aggressor and attacker.…but this does not permit them to debate the position of the Party.
Tremors from Israel’s 1967 triumph were felt within the Soviet Union itself. Natan Sharansky writes: “The Six-Day War…made an indelible impression on me, as it did on most Soviet Jews.” From the other side, KGB chief Yuri Andropov sent his superiors this worrisome report:
Infected with Zionist ideas, nationalistically inclined individuals from among Soviet citizens try to take advantage of religious gatherings at the synagogue to stir up nationalistic sentiments. They talk about the need for Jewish solidarity, express their sympathies for the state of Israel, and try to stir up nationalistic feeling among the youth.
So indeed they did—with much success not only among the youth. The movement of Soviet Jews became the first organized dissidence in Soviet history, shaking the totalitarian system. The movement soon allied with the emerging movement of dissident intellectuals, which was smaller but highly influential, with Sharansky playing a leading role in both. These forms of resistance in the Soviet bloc and within the “socialist motherland” itself, combined with the rediscovered confidence of the West (both of them factors to which Israel contributed more than most), weakened Communism until it began to crumble. Israel is a country that in many ways punches above its weight. The blows it landed on Soviet Communism, fighting at America’s side, helped to save the world.
1 “How Israel Keeps Saving the World,” October 2020.
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