Journal of Cold War Studies 4.2 (2002) 131-133
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Israeli-Soviet Relations 1953-1967:
From Confrontation to Disruption
Yosef Govrin, Israeli-Soviet Relations 1953-1967: From Confrontation to Disruption. London: Frank Cass, 1998. xxxvi 1 347 pp. $59.50.
Yosef Govrin served in the Israeli foreign ministry from 1953 to 1996 as a Soviet specialist, and he was first secretary in the Moscow embassy from 1964 to 1967. He is a scholar with a doctoral degree who has authored several books, including Israeli-Soviet Relations 1964-1966 (Jerusalem: Soviet and East European Research Center, Hebrew University, 1978). Govrin has additionally been posted as an ambassador to three countries. Hence, he combines practical experience, academic credentials, and expertise on the subject.
This book was first published in Hebrew in 1990, and the English edition was completed in 1996. It is based on Hebrew, Russian, and English sources, and relies heavily on documents from the Israeli Foreign Ministry. Unfortunately, comparable [End Page 131] Soviet documents were not available in 1990, and the English edition was not updated to take account of materials released from the Russian archives since 1992. Instead, the book relies solely on published books and articles (but not interviews with former Soviet officials) when discussing the Soviet Union. The presentation is factually accurate and reliable, but Govrin tends to offer mainly a compilation of lists and paraphrasings of Israeli documents, resulting in a lack of fluidity in the text. Equally problematic is the confusing organizational structure, which places four historical chapters at the beginning, six thematic chapters in the middle, and then five more historical chapters that cover the same time period as the opening section. In particular, the account of Soviet strategy toward the Middle East (in chapter 11) would have been more effective if it had been included earlier.
Govrin provides a considerable amount of useful information, but the book reads too much like a foreign ministry position paper in style and content. The emphasis is clearly on diplomatic history rather than the activities of Israeli intelligence, which are not covered. Caution is also evident in the absence of any discussion of Soviet oil deliveries to Israel (via Italy, Yugoslavia, and Turkey) after the formal 1956 cutoff, and in Govrin's decision to refrain from exploring the carefully timed campaigns on behalf of Soviet Jewry.
The Israeli side is the focus of attention as Govrin interprets the nuances of the internal debate over foreign policy. He makes no mention of possible differences within the Soviet system. In essence, the book is a study of bilateral relations in which the Israeli role is emphasized because of Govrin's personal knowledge and the obstacles posed in 1990 by the dearth of Soviet documents. The broader context of the Cold War, especially the triangular interaction of the Soviet Union, the United States, and Israel, is never fleshed out. Israel's fear that détente could produce an imposed Arab-Israeli settlement, and Israeli overtures toward Moscow as part of a tactical game with Washington, are certainly topics that would have been worth analyzing. Chinese policy is almost completely absent here, and the Soviet position on the Palestinian issue is given short shrift. When and why did the Soviet Union endorse the concept of a Palestinian state alongside Israel? The book provides no answers.
Govrin offers a fascinating account (pp.51-52) of Israel's 1958 arms request to the Soviet Union, but many other issues should have been subjected to closer scrutiny—such as Israel's collaboration with Britain and France during the 1956 Suez crisis (p.241). Govrin makes no effort to explore possible links between the Soviet invasion of Hungary in November 1956 and the Middle East hostilities, nor does he indicate how the 1962 American decision to furnish Israel with Hawk air-defense missiles affected Soviet-Israeli relations. It is also regrettable that he does not place Foreign Minister Abba Eban's suggestion of a Middle East "Tashkent" in the context of the January 1966 agreement signed by India and...