Russia and the Arabs: Behind the Scenes in the Middle East from the Cold War to the Present
By Yevgeny Primakov
Translated by Paul Gould
(Basic Books, 418 pp., $29.95)
Over the decades, many people in the West, and certainly most Israelis, came to view the Soviet Union and then Russia as a force for ill, if not evil, in the Middle East, and perhaps farther afield as well. From the 1950s onward, the Soviets and then the Russians armed Israel’s enemies (Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and recently Russia appear to have signed a deal with Tehran to sell it state-of-the-art S-300 anti-aircraft missiles that, if deployed, would seriously hamper an Israeli, or American, assault on Iran’s nuclear installations). They consistently supported the Arab states and the Palestinians in international forums; prodded the Arabs into unnecessary wars (certainly in 1967 and in some ways also in 1956 and 1973); and, regionally, supported the worst of regimes and leaders—the Baathists of Syria and Iraq; the butcher of Sudan, Jaafar Nimeiri; Saddam Hussein; and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to name just a few. That is quite a record.
Indeed, on several occasions Soviet troops directly confronted the Israeli Air Force. In 1970, during the Israeli-Egyptian “War of Attrition” along the Suez Canal, Soviet-manned surface-to-air missile batteries engaged the IAF and “pushed” it eastward, and Israeli pilots downed five Soviet-piloted MiG interceptors; in the final moments of war in 1973, Soviet crews fired a salvo of Scud surface-to-surface missiles at Israeli troops in Sinai. On two occasions, the Soviets threatened to intervene massively and directly against Israel, in 1956 and 1973—on the former occasion even hinting at unleashing nuclear weapons. (Soviet Prime Minister Nikolai Bulganin threatened Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion in early November, saying that “the existence of Israel” was “in question” if it persisted in its campaign against the Egyptian army in Sinai.) So the Israelis saw the Soviets and then the Russians, as hostile, cynical, and brutal. (Soviet behavior over the years in other parts of the world added nothing positive to Moscow’s image.)
Now along comes Yevgeny Primakov, an old Soviet and Russian Middle East hand, a former Pravda correspondent, academic, and KGB operative (the distinction between the three was never clear—it appears that he was with the KGB, code name “Maksim,” when he served with Pravda and as a member of the Institute of World Economy and International Relations in Moscow), former director of the SVR, Russia’s foreign intelligence service (the KGB’s successor organization), Russia’s foreign minister from 1996 to 1998 and then, briefly, prime minister in 1998–1999—along comes this man to make the case for the defense. Many readers might sense that he is not exactly a knight in shining objective armor. But this is the most thoroughgoing account from the Russian perspective that I know. Here and there it is revelatory, and adds something to our historical knowledge.
Primakov’s message is simple: Russia never sinned, except perhaps marginally. True, Stalin in his later years was a rabid anti-Semite—Primakov reproduces two letters from Lavrenty Beria, the head of the KGB, one discounting the so-called Doctors’ Plot as so much Judeophobic propaganda (“deputy State Security Minister Mikhail Ryumin ... fabricated the story of an undercover terrorist ring of doctors”) and the other directly implicating Stalin in the murder of Solomon Mikhoels, the noted Yiddish actor. But Russia supported the new state of Israel in 1948, politically and with arms, which the United States refused to supply. Primakov adds that “the Soviet Union was the first to recognize the State of Israel” (which is wrong: the United States was the first); and consistently sought, since the 1950s, an Israeli-Arab accommodation. In his account, it even strove manfully—with Primakov himself often as point man, visiting guerrilla leaders in remote caves—to resolve internal Arab disputes, as in Yemen and Kurdistan.
Primakov gives a roseate general survey of Soviet and Russian policies in the Middle East since World War II, with chapters devoted to the Soviet role in successive Middle Eastern crises (1948, 1956, 1967, 1973) and to the relations between the Soviet Union and then Russia and each of the main regional protagonists—the Palestinians, Israel, Iraq, Lebanon, the Kurds, Syria, and Egypt. If things went wrong in the Middle East—wars, assassinations, massacres—it was no fault of the Russians, who were throughout well-meaning, peace-loving, and progressive: as kind as lambs. And who would know better, implies the author, than Primakov himself, who was there at every turn, in every hot spot, doing Kosygin’s and Brezhnev’s and Andropov’s and Putin’s bidding, fighting the good fight against corrupt, exploitative, bloody-minded, and mendacious imperialists and their regional cat’s paws?
Consider the Six-Day War and its aftermath. In fact, the war was triggered by Soviet disinformation and “warnings” to Egypt and Syria that Israel was massing troops on its northern border for an assault on Damascus. This prompted the Egyptian dispatch of armored divisions into Sinai on May 14-15, 1967, and the expulsion by Egypt of UNEF, the international peacekeeping force monitoring the Egypt-Israel border, and the closure of the Gulf of Aqaba to Israeli shipping and aircraft. These provoked Israel’s assault on Egypt’s airfields and ground forces in Sinai on June 5. But what does Primakov tell us?
It was alleged that the Kremlin had encouraged Egypt’s bellicosity in the months before the war.... Much is made of the fact that the Soviet government passed Nasser information ... that Israeli troops were massing on the border with Syria and that an invasion was planned for May 18-22.... Israel, of course, denied that it had any such plans. The Soviet ambassador in Tel Aviv was invited to travel to the Syrian border to see for himself that there were no troops gathering for an assault. The ambassador quite rightly turned down the invitation. He had no desire to participate in a cover-up of Israel’s military intentions, and he was fully aware that he would only be taken to places where neither Israeli soldiers nor military hardware were in evidence.
Primakov’s account is flawed in two ways. The Israeli-Syrian border is actually quite short, and Israel has very little territorial depth along it. Had Dmitri Chuvakhin, the ambassador, gone north, he would have noted the military preparations and concentrations (the Russians had spoken of “10-12 brigades,” a force necessitating also a massive mobilization of reserves), had there been any. An armored brigade on the move consists of three hundred to four hundred vehicles, half of them twenty- to thirty-yard-long transporters, and on a narrow road (all of Israel’s roads were narrow then) it stretches for several miles. Likewise, a mass mobilization of reserves was also something that a state the size of Israel could not have concealed. Israel would certainly have allowed Chuvakhin to look wherever he wanted. The reason that he declined—and it seems that he was repeatedly invited to inspect the border and repeatedly declined—was because Moscow knew that the allegation was utterly without substance. There were no troop concentrations and no mobilization.
This was confirmed at the time by General Odd Bull, the head of the U.N. Truce Supervision Organisation, and his observers, who regularly inspected the area. Primakov makes no mention of this. Nor does he refer to the memoirs of General Muhammad Fawzi, the Egyptian army’s chief of staff, who had been sent to Syria by Nasser on May 14 to verify the Soviet “reports.” Fawzi recalled: “I did not find any concrete evidence to support the information received. On the contrary, aerial photographs taken by Syrian reconnaissance on 12 and 13 May showed no change in normal [Israeli] military positions.”
Why exactly Moscow misinformed the Egyptians and Syrians in early May about troop concentrations remains a mystery. Perhaps Moscow genuinely feared that the Israelis intended at some point to attack their client regime in Damascus and wanted the Egyptians to deter them by posing a challenge in the south. Perhaps Soviet intelligence simply made a mistake. Whatever the case, Moscow’s actions unleashed the dogs of war.
Primakov is probably right that Egypt’s provocative steps in the third week of May 1967—pushing armor into Sinai, which had been effectively demilitarized since 1956; expelling the U.N. peacekeepers; and closing the Straits of Tiran—were designed not as preliminaries to launching a war but “to intimidate Israel” and gain a bloodless political victory. Primakov, ever the admirer of Nasser, even suggests that expelling the U.N. force was “the doing of the Egyptian military rather than the high command.” In any event, he wants us to believe that the Soviets were blameless: “The Soviet Union supported Egypt’s actions during the runup to the conflict ... because it thought they lessened, rather than increased, the likelihood of an all-out war.” I’m not sure that even an avid Communist would understand this reasoning.
It is something of a revelation, or another bit of post-Soviet disinformation, to have Primakov go on to describe frantic Soviet efforts in late May and early June to stave off war by organizing a meeting in Moscow between Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol and Nasser. (If true, this would contradict the main conclusion of Foxbats Over Dimona, a recent book by Isabella Ginor and Gideon Remez, who argued that the Soviets deliberately engineered the war in order to create an opportunity to destroy Israel’s nuclear plant in Dimona.) Primakov says that Eshkol gave his consent, but Nasser, “because of strong objections from the Syrian prime minister Yusuf Zuaiyin and President Nureddin Atassi,” refused. (Again Primakov lets Nasser off the hook.)
Switching fronts, Primakov then tells us that on June 10, the last day of the Six-Day War, “Israeli troops advanced on Damascus.” The Soviets promptly threatened Israel with “sanctions” and severed relations with Jerusalem. His implication is that the threat halted Israel’s advance on the Syrian capital—a canard if there ever was one. Israeli troops on June 9 and June 10 had simply occupied the Golan Heights, halting of their own volition (and because of the U.N. Security Council cease-fire resolution) at Kuneitra. Damascus was never on their agenda.
In the wake of the Six-Day War, the Arab League unanimously resolved not to recognize Israel, not to negotiate, and not to make peace—the famous “three no’s” of Khartoum—and the Security Council passed Resolution 242, positing a land-for-peace deal between the combatants. In discussing these historic resolutions, Primakov makes the valid point, quoting Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko, that “the unrealistic, extremist line taken by the Algerian and Syrian leaderships” had intimidated the more reasonable Arab leaders into extremism, lest they be “accused of making too many concessions”—which, indeed, describes the norm of group dynamics and radicalizing conformity that has characterized the Arab states in their attitude to Israel and, at times, the West for the past seventy years. Thus, for example, to this day all the Arab states—including Egypt and Jordan, which have made peace with Israel—continue unreservedly and publicly to uphold the Palestinian refugees’ “right of return,” despite knowing the demand to be unrealistic and inimical to Israel’s continued existence.
Primakov describes Resolution 242 as calling for “the withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from the territories it occupied during the 1967 Six-Day War” and “recognition of the sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence of every state in the region [especially Israel].” But a paragraph later he admits that the binding English version refers to “territories” rather than “the territories,” a difference that was designed to provide room for eventual minor border changes. More worryingly, Primakov in one or two places actually implies that Israel’s legitimate borders, to which it should eventually withdraw, are the U.N. partition resolution lines of 1947, which sought to create a Jewish state 25 percent smaller and even more unnaturally bounded than the one that emerged from the war in 1948. And lastly, Primakov fails altogether to mention Israel’s secret offer to Syria and Egypt, on June 19, 1967, to withdraw completely from the Golan Heights and the Sinai Peninsula in exchange for their demilitarization and peace, an offer the two implicitly rejected as they signed on to the Khartoum “no’s.”
During the interwar years, between 1967 and 1973, and after the October war, Primakov was the chief Soviet representative in secret meetings with the Israeli leadership. I believe that this book is the first published description of those talks. He vividly describes a meeting with the hard-nosed Golda Meir, Eshkol’s successor, in August 1971: “If there’s a [new] war, we’ll fight that war,” she told him. “If any aircraft get in our way, we’ll shoot them down”—obliquely referring to the downing, in the previous year, during the Israeli-Egyptian “War of Attrition” along the Suez Canal, of the Soviet-piloted MiGs—something that Primakov, out of embarrassment, does not mention. Primakov responded: “Could you clarify whose aircraft you intend to shoot down?” And Golda (according to Primakov) replied: “In 1948 we shot down five British planes.”
The Soviet effort, as Primakov describes it, to get an Israeli-Egyptian or Israeli–pan-Arab peace deal, or even a partial agreement, as proposed by Anwar Sadat, on the re-opening of the Suez Canal, failed. “The Israeli negotiators clearly had no wish to discuss concrete issues, and a chance to make real progress toward a peace settlement was wasted,” he hastily concludes. But were the Arab states, including Sadat’s Egypt, really ready for peace with Israel in 1971? I am not so sure. Regarding even Egypt, the evidence is ambiguous.
On the lighter side, Primakov describes how Shalheveth Freier, head of Israel’s Atomic Energy Commission, escorted him on a visit to downtown Tel Aviv. “I don’t remember what film we saw, but I was surprised to see how similar the people in the packed auditorium were to Arabs, not just in their appearance, but in their behavior too—whistling when the film snapped in the projector—it was like being in a cinema in Damascus or Baghdad.” (I have never seen a film in Damascus or Baghdad, but this sounds about right.) Interestingly, Primakov’s description of Menachem Begin, whom he met in Jerusalem in September 1977, shortly after the latter assumed the premiership, is far warmer than his description of Shimon Peres, whom he calls “particularly antagonistic.” Primakov appears to have been won over by Begin’s description of the Russians as “the greatest, most noble, most kind-hearted of people, as I’m always telling my young assistants.” “There was nothing put on about the way he said it,” remarks Primakov. “Absent from our meeting was the combative stance our Israeli counterparts [Meir, Peres, Yitzhak Rabin] had assumed in the previous rounds of talks.”
He also has a kind word for Benjamin Netanyahu, who “struck me as a man we could do business with... [he] was willing to engage in a frank and open exchange of views, which, I admit, impressed me greatly. On the whole, I get on with Netanyahu much better than most of my counterparts do—and not just those from the Arab countries, but from the United States too.... He understood, possibly even better than his predecessors, that it was vital to reach a settlement with Syria.... He was a man I could be straight with.” Perhaps, in speaking of Netanyahu, Primakov is hinting at the current situation. And indeed, this book is not merely about the past. Primakov confronts also the most serious contemporary issues—the nuclear threat, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and Hamas—and future perils.
But having toed the party line for decades, Primakov remains a solid party-liner—and one encounters assertions that might severely test the credulity and reason of even the most understanding and conciliatory of Western liberals. Take the issue of nuclear weaponry. “It was Israel’s possession of nuclear arms ... that had made it so difficult to find a peaceful solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Israel’s nuclear capability had goaded Arab and other Middle Eastern countries and organizations to seek ways of reducing their ‘handicap,’” and “Israel’s possession of nuclear weapons has demonstrably dragged the region into a nuclear arms race.” A survey of the relevant history subverts all these assertions. According to reports, Israel has had a nuclear armory since 1967–1968, its nuclear project having been launched a decade earlier. Yet none of its warring neighbors was prompted or provoked into embarking on a countervailing nuclear program during the past forty years. If anything, Israel’s nuclear capability has made for Arab realism and accommodationism: Sadat reportedly opted for peace with Israel mainly because he feared that an escalation of belligerency would ultimately lead to Egypt’s destruction. And Israel’s possession of nuclear weapons may well have been decisive in limiting both Sadat’s and Hafez Al Assad’s objectives when planning the October war of 1973. So a good case can be made that Israel’s nuclear arsenal has been a cause for caution and a moderating realism in the Middle East.
But Iran’s current advance toward nuclear-weapons capability and production—and there is no serious Western leader who doubts that those are Iran’s aims—is clearly destabilizing the Middle East and triggering a regional arms race. To begin with, it raises the prospect of an American, Israeli, or joint American-Israeli campaign to pre-emptively destroy Ahmadinejad’s nuclear facilities, which may provoke a full-scale Middle Eastern war. Even puny Jordan is now considering embarking on a nuclear program, and Egypt, Turkey, and some Gulf states are not far behind. In part, it is the nature of the Iranian beast that accounts for the regional fears. Israel, by contrast, has never overtly or covertly threatened its neighbors with destruction or with the use of its nuclear arsenal, and its leaders and generals are perceived as rational. But Iran’s rulers are perceived by most Middle Eastern leaders as aggressive and subversive of the regional order. They are widely viewed as irrational religious fanatics.
To be sure, it is not clear that Iran initiated its nuclear-weapons program with Israel in mind. It was started under the aegis of Khomeini during the Iran-Iraq war, and the Iranians may have had Iraq in their sights. Or, more generally, they may have sought to overawe Iraq and their other Sunni Arab neighbors and attain regional hegemony, untrammeled by a fear of American or Israeli intercession. Still, as Iran draws closer to a bomb, the focus has narrowed, and its only conceivable immediate target is the Jewish state. Without doubt, most Israelis today view Iran’s nuclear program as primarily aimed at them and their existence.
Yet Primakov’s chapter about the issue—titled “A Nuclear Shadow over the Arab-Israeli Conflict”—deals almost exclusively with the Israeli bomb. He tells us that “the danger of a nuclear-armed Israel is that it has been, and still is, deeply involved in virtually all of the conflicts that have roiled the Middle East.” What does this mean? That Israel will unleash its nuclear weapons in one of the conflicts in which it is involved? And is it true that Israel is involved in “virtually all” the conflicts in the region? Does he mean the American war in Iraq, or the Sunni-Shia hostilities there, since 2003; or the current conflicts in Afghanistan and Pakistan; or those in Sudan’s Darfur region or in northern Yemen; or between Turks and Kurds in southeastern Turkey? How is Israel involved in any of those conflicts?
Primakov asserts that “no legitimate arguments can be made to support Israel’s possession of nuclear arms.” How about Arab threats and efforts to destroy Israel since its inception? How about Iran’s threats to destroy Israel? Were these not legitimate reasons for Ben-Gurion and Israel’s leaders to have created and maintained a powerful deterrent? Does Russia have a more “legitimate” argument for its possession of nuclear weapons? Has anyone in the past threatened, or does anyone in the present threaten, Russia’s existence?
Primakov implies that Israel should divest itself of its atomic arsenal. He criticizes Israel’s destruction of the Osirak reactor in Iraq in 1981, which was motivated by the fear that Saddam Hussein intended to build and use nuclear weapons against Israel. “In carrying out this raid Begin had ... flouted international law and the United Nations Charter,” complains Primakov. I assume he is speaking of that same “international law” violated most recently by Russia in Georgia and Chechnya and, more distantly, by the Soviet government for which he worked in Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Finland, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. But there is one difference: none of these countries or peoples ever remotely threatened Russia’s existence or its vital interests.
As to Russia and Iran in the present, Primakov has this to say: “Some cynics have sought to make political capital out of the Iranian situation by directing accusations at Russia.” He sweepingly denies that Russia is “helping Iran to build a nuclear arsenal.” But he fails to mention all the very pertinent indirect ways Russia is doing just that—from constructing the nuclear reactor in Bushehr to supplying Iran with weaponry that could stymie a possible strike against the Iranian nuclear installations to Russia’s subversion of every effort to threaten or impose sanctions that might persuade Iran to give up its nuclear ambitions.
Primakov dismisses the idea of imposing sanctions against Iran as a way of halting its nuclearization. “Russia, China and other countries believe such sanctions would be counterproductive.... On the contrary, as the example of Iraq has taught us, Iranian politics would become increasingly radicalized.” (How, exactly?) And of course Primakov opposes bombing the Iranian nuclear installations—though he offers his readers some rather lame reasoning: “It can be predicted with some certainty that bombing Iran would lead to increased terrorist activity and possibly destabilize a number of moderate secular regimes, mainly in the Arab states. It would add new fuel to the wave of anti-Americanism.” I find it difficult to believe that any increase in global “antiAmericanism” unduly perturbs Primakov, who is a strong supporter of Putin. And a destabilized Middle East or world is surely a more dire prospect than the destabilization of some “moderate secular” Middle Eastern regimes.
The foregoing reasoning is rendered all the more baffling by Primakov’s clear-sightedness regarding the Iranian nuclear threat: “The prospect [of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons] along with repeated calls from its leadership to wipe Israel off the map, makes for a particularly volatile combination.... If Iran made a nuclear breakthrough, it could quite possibly wreck the nonproliferation treaty, paving the way for numerous other countries to get their hands on nuclear weapons.... This would create a radically different and significantly more dangerous situation in the world, not least because international terrorist organizations would gain easier access to nuclear weapons.” Primakov concludes his discussion of the Iranian nuclear threat by writing that President Obama’s conciliatory policy has “prompted a worldwide sigh of relief. By the time the reader picks up this book, most of the blanks in Iran’s nuclear ‘crossword puzzle’ will have been filled in. I would like to believe that by then we will be able to talk about this nuclear threat in the past tense.” Fat chance.
A book on Russia and the contemporary Middle East cannot avoid at least a passing mention of Muslim fundamentalism. Primakov the diplomat wends his way between the drops, trying to stay high and dry. He refers in passing to Samuel Huntington and then states that “the emergence of international terrorism ... is allegedly linked directly to the religion of Islam. There is plenty of evidence to show how erroneous it is to conflate the two ... only ignoramuses or spiteful Islamophobes could equate one of the oldest and most widely practiced religions in the world with terrorism.... Clearly, it is not because Islam itself is intrinsically extremist.” Perhaps. But almost all the world’s terrorism emanates from Muslim societies and is directed against non-Muslims (in the Philippines, Thailand, Nigeria, Sudan, Chechnya, India, London, Spain, the United States, and Israel) or against other Muslims seen as collaborators with the infidels (in Pakistan, Gaza, Afghanistan, and Indonesia). Clearly non-violent and moderate Muslims have been relatively unsuccessful in countering the “extremists.” The extremists seem to enjoy far greater popularity in the Muslim “street,” from Karachi to Gaza, Cairo, and Marrakesh, than the moderates.
But Primakov has a point when, a little later, he differentiates “between Islamic fundamentalism and Islamic extremism.” He seems to be saying that most Muslim Arabs are “fundamentalist,” meaning that they believe in God and his role as an agent in the temporal world, and that the Koran holds the “truth” and is God-given and must be interpreted literally. Primakov writes that “Islamic fundamentalism is the building of mosques, the observance of Islamic rituals, and mutual assistance between fellow believers. But it is only when Islamic fundamentalism uses force to impose Islamic rule over a state or a society that it takes on an aggressive or extremist form.” And immediately he relativizes the discussion—a common rhetorical strategy among progressives in the West—and implies that Islam and Christianity are not so different. “Throughout history,” he remarks, “Christian fundamentalism” turned into “Christian or Catholic extremism: We need only think of the Reformation or the Crusades.” Primakov fails to note that the Christian West has changed rather considerably over the past five centuries. Many if not most in the West are non-believers, and few are “fundamentalists,” and none strap bombs to their bodies and blow up mosques, buses, and funeral processions.
What is to blame for Muslim “extremism”? Primakov mentions economic polarization between the rich West and the Islamic and often poor East. But some of the terrorists are from well-to-do backgrounds, he notes—so that can’t be it. No, he says, the “extremism” is a product of the “breakdown of dialogue” between the civilizations. And one reason for that, he tells us, “is an unthinking obsession on the part of the United States ... with ‘exporting’ its model of democracy to other countries.... Worse still, its ‘export’ involved the use of military force.” So in the end it is the West that is to blame—that same West which, quite incidentally, humbled the Soviet Union. But now Russia has risen from those ashes, and Primakov assigns it a crucial role in the global clash of civilizations. Russia, with its Christian majority and Muslim minority, is a natural “bridge” and “example of peaceful cohabitation,” he tells us. Really? Has Primakov ever heard of Ingushetia, Dagestan, or Chechnya? “Peaceful cohabitation,” indeed.
On Hamas, Primakov displays the sort of naïveté (or dissimulation) that often characterizes the pages of The New York Review of Books. He fails to understand that radical Islamist true believers do not compromise their principles: they mean what they say and will not, normally, say the opposite, on the strategic plane, to gain tactical advantage. Primakov tells us that Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir “had actually been terrorists themselves”—so it makes no sense for Israel not to negotiate with Hamas on the grounds that it is a terrorist organization. Moreover, “we can’t begin to win the battle against international terrorism until we understand the attitude of ordinary Muslims ... toward organizations like Hamas.” Hamas, you see, has “two interweaving strands to its ideology: one Islamic and the other nationalistic. If its first achievement was to create an Islamic state in the region [where, in Gaza?], its main objective now is to end the Israeli occupation. There are grounds to believe that the nationalist strand ... will gather strength at the expense of its religious element, now that it has won power.... It is telling that Hamas did not even mention its aim of introducing a power structure based on Sharia law once it had won the [2006 Palestinian] elections.”
Primakov is quite right: it is “telling,” but not in the way he suggests. It is telling about Hamas’s clever and indirect approach: Hamas may not have announced the imposition of sharia law, but it has gradually and relentlessly imposed it in the area that it has controlled since 2007, the Gaza Strip, without fanfare, without proclamations. Women are forced to wear headscarves; separate male and female venues are enforced (in private weddings, at beaches, and so on); no cinemas operate; and Christians and their sites (a library, a bookshop, a school) are intimidated and forced out or closed down. Sometimes it is the Hamas police that are the explicit agents of coercion; and sometimes Hamas allows “extremist” (to use Primakov’s phrase) gangs to do the dirty work. But the work gets done—and so Gaza increasingly resembles Iran. And this, according to Hamas’s constitution or charter of 1988—which Primakov nowhere mentions—is what the organization intends for all of Palestine, should it attain dominion.
Primakov is taken in by Hamas’s offers of a “truce” with Israel, as if a “truce” is tantamount to acceptance of Israel and agreement to a two-state settlement. No Hamas leader has ever said the organization will recognize Israel, or give up its claim to all of Palestine, or cease the struggle to attain this goal. Sure, Hamas spokesmen, for good tactical reasons, have occasionally spoken of a five- or ten-year truce, if Israel agrees to withdraw to the 1967 borders and accepts the refugees’ right of return. But a full return to these borders and even the start of a mass Arab refugee return will spell instant chaos and the demise of the Jewish state, which will be overwhelmed by Arab numbers. And that, of course, is Hamas’s goal. Until it redefines its goal, meaning until it changes its charter, there is no reason to believe that Hamas’s objectives have really changed, however much chaff it scatters before credulous foreign commentators.
Occasionally Primakov supplies real insights, and here and there he makes noteworthy admissions. He tackles head-on the problem, moral and political, posed by the so-called “progressive” or “socialist” Arab regimes in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, who, while enjoying Soviet beneficence, were busy suppressing, usually very brutally, their local communist parties. Primakov’s hero Nasser, incidentally, was one of the most prominent of these suppressors. The Arab world’s communists in the twentieth century failed to achieve even a modicum of power anywhere in the Middle East, but Primakov acknowledges their courage and offers this encomium: “But it would be wrong to conclude that the communist movement of the Arab world has played no part in its history.... It paved the way for moderate forces to evolve across all Arab nations.” I wonder. Would Jordan’s King Abdullah II, or his great-grandfather, Abdullah I, two leading “moderates,” have agreed with such an analysis? They seem to have emerged as “moderates” without any connection to communism and its works. But the Soviets had at least one success, according to Primakov: “Five government ministers [in Yemen] speak Russian.” I wonder how useful that is now.
Throughout the book, Primakov lauds this or that Arab regime (Nasser’s Egypt, Nimeiri’s Sudan, a succession of Yemeni leaders) as “socialist” or “progressive.” But then, in the book’s final pages, he at last offers the reader a real illumination: “There was no ‘socialist phase’ in the postcolonial development of the Arab nations.... What was left was Arab nationalism, which in effect abandoned revolutionary social reform.” But such illuminations are few and far between, whereas the propaganda is constant. Consider this gem: “The Soviet Union never conspired to bring down an Arab monarchy; Moscow always respected the Arab kingdoms.” Or: “Even well before the bloodbath in Chechnya, both Russia and the former Soviet Union took a firm stance against the Palestinians’ using terrorism to fight for their rights. This subject was always raised—I repeat, always—whenever Russian officials held talks with Fatah, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Hamas, or any other Palestinian groups. It still is.” Apparently, all the reports of logistical and operational support by the KGB and its Eastern European sub-contractors for Palestinian terror groups in Europe during the late ’60s and ’70s are just so much “capitalist” hogwash.
Russia and the Arabs is a disappointing and dispiriting book. As an effort at historiography interspersed with personal reminiscences, I would have expected a former SVR director and prime minister to have made use of the core files of the relevant Soviet and Russian agencies regarding the successive Middle Eastern crises. But there is almost no trace of such research and documentation in the book, and there are almost no footnotes. Primakov seems to have relied for his reconstructions of history almost exclusively on his memory, on some personal notes and diaries, on some newspaper clippings (including his own dispatches for Pravda), and on a very small number of books, most of them memoirs, mostly by non-Russians. Alongside tidbits of enlightenment there is a great deal of distortion, obfuscation, and agitprop.
It is not always clear when Primakov is telling us what he really thinks and when, with national or personal interests in mind, he is playing to this or that audience. Or perhaps the problem is that if you pass most of your life in a cynical, airless, and phony environment, you lose the ability to weigh things with clarity and objectivity. But this is the book that Henry Kissinger says “provides illuminating insight.” In a decade or so, perhaps, a historian will write a book about the court of Czar Putin, and Primakov will scurry and strut in and out of its pages, here supplying analysis, there soothing the brow of a Muslim with grievances (oh, there are so many of them), here fixing a retired assassin’s pension, there filling in a bill of lading for yet one more shipment of AK-47s to a godforsaken desert or mountaintop.
Benny Morris is a professor of Middle Eastern history at Ben-Gurion University and the author, most recently, of 1948: A History of the First Arab-Israeli War (Yale University Press).