Shammai Siskind, an Israeli security consultant and veteran of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) combat engineer corps, spoke to Middle East Forum Radio host Gregg Roman on March 18 about his recent article in the Spring 2020 edition of MEF's Middle East Quarterly showcasing Israel's vital role as a Cold War ally of the United States.
According to Siskind, the Soviet Union initially envisioned Israel as a potential "communist satellite" in the Middle East, and in 1947 it cast a vote in support of the Jewish state's creation. But Soviet leaders were quickly disabused of their expectations when they saw that "Israel was really not interested in being the Middle East USSR," instead aligning with Western powers. During the 1950s, Moscow became increasingly anti-Israel, shifting its support to the Arab states.
Meanwhile, public sentiment towards Israel was growing in America, and the U.S. came to see Israel as a "bulwark" against Soviets influence in the region" and the "tremendous amount of Soviet money and weapons being poured into Arab nations."
A seminal development in the budding Israel-U.S. relationship came in 1956, when a serendipitous turn of events found a Polish émigré to Israel, Victor Grayevsky, visiting his girlfriend who worked in the office of the Polish Communist Party. She gave him a copy of a highly classified transcript of a secret, closed-session speech by Khrushchev denouncing the crimes of Stalin. Grayevsky passed the document on to an Israeli contact, after which it made its way to the CIA.
Publicizing the speech's revelation of the horrors of the Stalin era "led ... to a major de-legitimization of the Soviet regime in the Western world, ... with major geopolitical consequences that were felt for years, if not decades, afterwards," Siskind said. News of the speech also resulted in a falling out between the Soviets and Communist China, who interpreted Khrushchev's attempt to be seen as a progressive as "inauthentic" to the Communist cause.
In 1963's Operation Diamond, Israel engineered the defection of Christian Iraqi Air Force pilot Munir Redfa, who surreptitiously flew his advanced MiG-21 fighter plane from Iraq to Israel. Israel closely studied the aircraft's cutting edge technology on its own and subsequently loaned it to the U.S. The radar detection intelligence the U.S. gained from the captured aircraft was invaluable. This was the first case of "substantial defense cooperation on a technical level between Israel and the United States," said Siskind, but not the last.
Six years later, in Operation Rooster 53, elite Israeli forces raided Egypt's Ras Gharib military base, seized "one of the most advanced radar models in the world," a Soviet P-12, and transported it back to Israel by helicopter. This was "the first example where you find that intelligence collection became a priority when Israeli boots were on the ground," said Siskind.
During the 1970s, Israel provided a far more important contribution to the U.S. Cold War effort – intelligence on Soviet strategic missile capabilities, uncertainty about which was a preoccupation of "every president from Eisenhower to Ronald Reagan." By deploying a network of spies throughout Eastern Europe, Israel cultivated retired Russian military officers as assets. From the compartmentalized knowledge of each asset, Israel was able to piece together a highly accurate aggregate picture of Soviet capabilities, which had previously been overestimated by the U.S.
As the U.S. became the principal supplier of arms to the IDF after the Six Day War, Israel took on a unique role as "often the first one to deploy these advanced weapon systems" and provide critical intelligence about their battlefield performance. Today, this was most recently the case with the F-35, "the most advanced fighter [plane] in the world," deployed in an actual combat scenario for the first time by Israel in Syria.
Marilyn Stern is the producer of Middle East Forum Radio.