Israel and Eastern Europe: From Disruption to Resumption

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ISRAEL AND EASTERN EUROPE: FROM DISRUPTION TO RESUMPTION Relations with the East European States: From Disruption 1967 to Resumption 1989-91, by Yosef Govrin, London: Vallentine Mitchell, 2011, 322 pp.

Reviewed by Wolfgang G. Schwanitz

What a day in history it was, that Saturday, June 10,1967. It was a frightful scene, as if the mob would at any moment break into the courtyard and the embassy itself. It lasted for hours, writes Yosef Govrin, as the outraged Soviets departed. In the last five days Israel had defeated the armies of Egypt, Syria, and Jordan, seizing large Arab territories. As Govrin, first secretary of the Israeli embassy, rushed through the streets of Moscow, thousands shouted: "Down with Israel!" It seemed to him, who had told this story in his 1998 book on Soviet-Israeli relations,1 as if the Soviet giant had declared war on tiny Israel. But the Kremlin had "only" severed ties with the Jewish state. The Israelis lowered their flag singing "Hatikva," their national anthem. All the Israelis at East European missions, except Romania, did the same.

Yosef Govrin was then posted to South America. From 1976 to 1985, he served as director of the Eastern European Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. For four years he was ambassador to Romania. About two decades after the breakup of 1967, he participated in the restoration of ties with Eastern Europe. Excepting the political changes in Albania, there emerged fifteen new republics from the territory of the former Soviet Union. One country vanished: the German Democratic Republic, the GDR. It was not quite German but Sovietdominated, and not a republic either but a Kremlin-style dictatorship. Before the German unification in 1990, Govrin negotiated with the East Germans. In 2010, he wrote this book asking if his talks about possible diplomatic ties with them had been only a passing episode.

SOME BACKGROUND TO THE BIG BREAKUP

Govrin deals with the nearly forgotten past. Who remembers the Soviet hold on those East European lands and its influence on the radicals in the Middle East ? In the second half of the Cold War, the East European states, writes Govrin, adopted the Soviet formula, demanding: (1) Israel's withdrawal from all territories occupied in 1967, (2) the right of self-determination for the Palestinian people, including their right to establish their own independent state, and (3) security guarantees by the UN Security Council for the states of the region. Israel rejected this, claiming that two members of the Security Council, the Soviet Union and China, had no diplomatic ties with the Jewish state, and that it did not regard the PLO as a partner for talks as long as it remained committed to the Palestinian Charter which denied Israel's right to exist. To this day, the Palestinian Authority and its member groups have resolutely retained this document with its offending clauses.

Then the American president Ronald Reagan and his Soviet counterpart, Michael S. Gorbachev, changed the equation. The Russian used an idea of his predecessor, Brezhnev. To counter the U.S. "bilateral" approach which it employed during the Camp David negotiations between Egypt and Israel, on February 23,1981, Leonid I. Brezhnev adopted a multilateral path to settle Arab-Israeli conflicts. Israel rejected it because it could be outmaneuvered by Arab majorities. The forum would boost the detrimental Soviet influence. But on October 30, 1991, Gorbachev at the UN Madrid Peace Conference favored a new joint American-Soviet approach as an opportunity for possible bilateral Arab-Israeli deals.

This was the framework in which East Europeans broke off and later resumed their ties with Israel. During the decades which followed the big breakup on Saturday, June 10, 1967, most of these states abandoned Communist doctrine and voted for democracy, laying the foundation for normal ties. When the Six Day War broke out on Monday, the reviewer was in school as a sixth grader near the pyramids. …