The Soviet Union progressively developed a policy of undermining Israel. Their primary objective was to use the country as a weapon in their Cold War struggle against the US and the West. To achieve their goal, the Soviets had to create a Palestinian national identity that did not hitherto exist and a narrative that Jews had no rights to the land and were naked aggressors. According to General Ion Pacepa, former chief of Romania's intelligence services, the KGB created the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in the early 1960s. Pictured: PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat (right) lays a wreath at the Lenin Mausoleum during his 12th visit in Moscow, on August 30, 1977. (Photo by STF/AFP via Getty Images)
Last month the UN General Assembly re-affirmed its implacable hostility to one of its own member states. It voted overwhelmingly — 125-8, with 34 abstentions — to fund an unprecedented permanent Human Rights Council (UNHRC) commission of inquiry (COI) into allegations of war crimes and human rights abuse by Israel. Taxpayers' funds will pay an eyewatering $5.5 million budget in the first year alone, well over twice that of the UNHRC commission investigating the Syrian civil war.
Since its creation in 2006, the council has established 32 inquiries, nine of which — one-third — have focused entirely on Israel. But this latest COI is the first open-ended inquiry it has set up. It has no time-limit and no restriction on its scope. The US voted against the move, saying it "perpetuates a practice of unfairly singling out Israel in the UN". Among the abstainers was Australia, whose representative said, with characteristic plain-speaking: "We oppose anti-Israel bias".
As the US, Australia and others fear, it is inevitable that Israel will be falsely pronounced guilty of the "systematic discrimination and repression based on national, ethnic, racial or religious identity" that the COI says it will probe.
I understand the COI plans to explicitly brand Israel an "apartheid state". This lie will be taken up across the world, fuelling antisemitic hatred against Jews everywhere. It will contribute to what Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid described this week as an imminent debate "unprecedented in its venom, or in its radioactivity, around the words, 'Israel as an apartheid state'."
The lie of "Israeli apartheid" was dreamt up in Moscow during the Cold War and driven home by a relentless Soviet propaganda campaign until it took hold in the UN and across the Middle East and the West. This included the repeated comparison of Israel with South Africa in the Soviet media and in books such as "Zionism and Apartheid", an official state publication of Ukraine, then part of the Soviet Union.
The sometimes naive, sometimes malign students who will again be holding their poisonous "Israel apartheid week" at universities across the globe this year will be parroting the same Soviet propaganda as their predecessors have done for decades. They, and many other Israel-haters use the apartheid slogan regardless of the reality that under no rational measure can Israel be considered an apartheid state. They do so because its meaning is easily understood, it disgusts people and rallies them to the anti-Israel cause. That is why it was invented by Moscow.
The apartheid smear is just one part of the greatest slur campaign in history, organized over many years against Israel by the Kremlin with the KGB in the lead, utilising the formidable resources of intelligence services of the USSR. It was perhaps the most successful disinformation campaign — of many — in Soviet history. It endures and gains strength even today, more than 50 years after it was first conceived and 30 years after the USSR collapsed.
It is worth understanding how this malevolent project originated and evolved, not only to help defend against the continuing political warfare waged on Israel and Jews, but also as a case study for the ongoing disinformation campaigns against the West by authoritarian states such as Russia, China and Iran. To gain even a superficial insight into this carefully contrived scheme we must take a trip back into history.
When Israel was re-established in 1948, following UN General Assembly Resolution 181, the new state initially pursued a policy of non-alignment. Surrounded by enemies, it needed economic support and arms from either or both the USA and USSR or their allies. Given the socialist political influences in Israel, the Soviet leadership expected the country would turn towards communism and align with the USSR, thus strengthening Soviet power in the Middle East and its wider competition with the West. One of Stalin's main reasons for quickly recognising Israel in 1948 was the intention to use it to undermine British dominion in the Middle East.
Even with significant Soviet covert and overt efforts to lure Israel into its fold, this may have been a vain hope from the beginning. In any case, the pressures of the Cold War in the 1950s, as well as domestic political considerations and concerns over antisemitism inside the Soviet Union, led Israeli prime minister David Ben Gurion to align his country with the West, beginning with support for US-led UN intervention in Korea, against the Soviet will.
Israel's participation with the UK and France in the 1956 Suez campaign further alienated the Soviet government, which wrote a letter to Jerusalem (as well as to Paris and London) threatening rocket attacks and promising direct military support to the Egyptian army.
The breakdown in Israel-Soviet relations was later compounded by Israel's defensive victories against the Arabs in 1967 and again in 1973. Over this period, all hope of Israel becoming a Soviet client had steadily evaporated. Arab armies sponsored, trained and equipped by the USSR had been humiliated, and so had Moscow. Thus the Soviets progressively developed a policy of undermining Israel. Their primary objective was to use the country as a weapon in their Cold War struggle against the US and the West.
The Kremlin understood that conventional attacks against Israel could not succeed, so instead focused on using Arabs as terrorist proxies, directing, training, funding and arming groups like the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), PFLP-General Command (PFLP-GC), Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP) and Fatah to carry out attacks against Israeli and Jewish targets, including wave after wave of aircraft hijacking.
The Soviets employed the same terrorist tactics elsewhere, including in Europe, using proxies such as Baader-Meinhof and the Red Army Factions. The details of Moscow-sponsored terrorist operations in the Middle East and elsewhere are set out in 25,000 pages of KGB documents copied and then smuggled out of Russia in the early 1990s by senior KGB archivist Vasili Mitrokhin and now lodged in the UK, at Churchill College, Cambridge.
General Ion Pacepa, chief of Romania's foreign intelligence service, played a significant role in Soviet bloc operations directed against Israel and the US. In 1978 he became the highest-ranking intelligence officer ever to defect from the Soviet sphere and, among many secret revelations, provided details of KGB operations against Israel.
Pacepa says the chairman of the KGB, Yuri Andropov (later Brezhnev's successor as General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party), told him:
"We needed to instil a Nazi-style hatred for the Jews throughout the Islamic world, and to turn this weapon of the emotions into a terrorist bloodbath against Israel and its main supporter, the United States."
An important element of Moscow's anti-Israel/US campaign in the Middle East was a propaganda war. Andropov told Pacepa:
"Islam was obsessed with preventing the infidels' occupation of its territory, and it would be highly receptive to our characterization of the US Congress as a rapacious Zionist body aiming to turn the world into a Jewish fiefdom."
In other words, he knew that the Arabs would be easy tools in the anti-Israel propaganda war and were already playing their part. Their work only needed to be focused, intensified and funded.
To achieve its objectives, the Kremlin devised Operation SIG, a disinformation campaign intended "to turn the whole Islamic world against Israel and the US". Pacepa reported that by 1978, under Operation SIG, the KGB had sent some 4,000 Soviet bloc "agents of influence" into Islamic countries to help achieve this. They also printed and circulated vast amounts of anti-Israel and anti-Jewish propaganda, translated into Arabic.
This included the "Protocols of the Elders of Zion", a fabricated antisemitic text setting out supposedly secret plans of the Jews to rule the world by manipulating the economy, controlling the media and fostering religious conflict. It was written by agents of the Tsarist secret police and subsequently used by the Nazis in their antisemitic propaganda.
As well as mobilising the Arabs to the Soviet cause, Andropov and his KGB colleagues needed to appeal to the democratic world. To do so, the Kremlin decided to turn the conflict from one that sought simply to destroy Israel into a struggle for human rights and national liberation from an illegitimate American-sponsored imperialist occupier. They set about transforming the narrative of the conflict from religious jihad — in which Islamic doctrine demands that any land that has ever been under Muslim control must be regained for Islam — to secular nationalism and political self-determination, something far more palatable to Western democracies. This would provide cover for a vicious terrorist war, even garnering widespread support for it.
To achieve their goal, the Soviets had to create a Palestinian national identity that did not hitherto exist and a narrative that Jews had no rights to the land and were naked aggressors. According to Pacepa, the KGB created the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in the early 1960s, as they had also orchestrated so-called national liberation armies in several other parts of the world. He says the 1964 Palestinian National Charter was drafted in Moscow. This document was fundamental to the invention and establishment of an artificial Palestinian nationhood.
The initial charter did not claim the West Bank or the Gaza Strip for "Palestine". In fact, it explicitly repudiated any rights to these lands, falsely recognising them respectively as Jordanian and Egyptian sovereign territories. Instead, the PLO claim was to the rest of Israel. This was amended after the 1967 war, when Israel ejected the illegal Jordanian and Egyptian occupiers, and the West Bank and Gaza for the first time were re-branded as Palestinian territory.
The first mention of a "Palestinian people" to mean Arabs in Palestine appeared in the 1964 charter. Previously, and particularly during the League of Nations Mandate for Palestine 1919-1948, "Palestinians" had been commonly used to describe Jews living in the territory.
Zuheir Mohsen, a senior PLO leader, admitted in 1977:
"The Palestinian people do not exist. The creation of a Palestinian state is only a means for continuing our struggle against the state of Israel for our Arab unity... Only for political and tactical reasons do we speak today about the existence of a Palestinian people, since Arab national interests demand that we posit the existence of a distinct 'Palestinian people' to oppose Zionism. Yes, the existence of a separate Palestinian identity exists only for tactical reasons."
This reality has been publicly supported, sometimes inadvertently, in statements by several other Palestinian leaders. Quoted by Alan Hart in his 1984 book, "Arafat: A Political Biography", PLO leader Yasser Arafat himself said:
"The Palestinian people have no national identity. I, Yasir Arafat, man of destiny, will give them that identity through conflict with Israel."
Moscow first took its campaign to brand Israeli Jews as the oppressors of their invented "Palestinian people" to the UN in 1965. Their attempts to categorise Zionism as racism failed at that attempt but succeeded almost a decade later in the infamous UN General Assembly Resolution 3379. Its determination that "Zionism is a form of racism and racial discrimination" was revoked under US pressure in 1991 but by then had gained great traction and is frequently cited today by anti-Israel campaigners.
The Mitrokhin documents show that both Yasser Arafat, and his successor as PLO chief, Mahmoud Abbas, now President of the Palestinian Authority, were KGB agents. Both were instrumental in the KGB's disinformation operations as well as its terrorist campaigns.
Moscow, through Egypt, had installed Arafat as leader of the PLO in 1969 and its support kept him there in the face of internal dissent following the PLO's expulsion from Jordan in 1970. According to Pacepa:
"In 1969 the KGB asked Arafat to declare war on American 'imperial-Zionism'... It appealed to him so much, Arafat later claimed to have invented the imperial-Zionist battle cry. But in fact, 'imperial-Zionism' was a Moscow invention, a modern adaptation of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and long a favorite tool of Russian intelligence to foment ethnic hatred. The KGB always regarded anti-Semitism plus anti-imperialism as a rich source of anti-Americanism...."
Moscow had assigned to Romania the task of supporting the PLO, and Pacepa was Arafat's handler during his KGB career. He provided Arafat with $200,000 of laundered cash every month throughout the 1970s. Pacepa also facilitated Arafat's relationship with Romanian President Nicolae Ceaușescu, a master propagandist who had been given the job of schooling him in hoodwinking the West. For his dealings with Washington, Ceaușescu told Arafat in 1978: "You simply have to keep on pretending that you'll break with terrorism and that you'll recognize Israel — over, and over, and over."
Ceaușescu's advice was reinforced by North Vietnamese communist General Vo Nguyen Giap, whom Arafat met several times: "Stop talking about annihilating Israel and instead turn your terror war into a struggle for human rights. Then you will have the American people eating out of your hand". (David Meir-Levi, "History Upside Down: The Roots of Palestinian Fascism and the Myth of Israeli Aggression")
An internal KGB document among the Mitrokhin archives reported: "Krotov [Mahmoud Abbas's cover-name] is an agent of the KGB." The KGB definition of agents is: those who "consistently, systematically and covertly carry out intelligence assignments, while maintaining secret contact with an official in the agency."
Among other tasks, Abbas was used by the KGB to spread propaganda accusing "Western Imperialism and Zionism" of cooperating with the Nazis. He attended a Moscow university controlled by the KGB in the early 1980s.There, under the supervision of his professor who later became a senior communist politician, Abbas wrote a doctoral dissertation denying the Holocaust and accusing Zionists of assisting Hitler.
Abbas is now entering the 18th year of his four-year elected term of office. Like his predecessor Arafat, his consistent rejection of every offer of peace with Israel, while concurrently talking the talk about peace and sponsoring terrorism, shows the residual influence of his Soviet masters.
The KGB disinformation campaign transformed the image of Israel from regional underdogs, surrounded by powerful enemies, into widely hated colonialist oppressors and occupiers of the downtrodden Palestinian people, a narrative that remains as strong as ever today.
Meanwhile the Palestinian movement created by Moscow, in the words of American historian David Meir-Levi, is "the only national movement for political self-determination in the entire world, and across all of world history, to have the destruction of a sovereign state and the genocide of a people as its only raison d'etre." This remains explicit in Hamas's charter, while somewhat more opaque in the Soviet-influenced utterances of Abbas's Palestinian Authority, especially those directed towards the West.
Moscow's campaign was significantly undermined by the 2020 rapprochement between Israel and several Arab states. The lesson here is the importance of American political will against authoritarian propaganda, which led to the game-changing Abraham Accords. Had this project been vigorously pursued after its initial success, it might have eventually led to the collapse of the Soviet-initiated Palestinian project and perhaps a form of peace between Israel and the Palestinian Arabs. It might yet achieve that if the US again musters the resolve to carry it through.
Meanwhile the December UN General Assembly vote and the Human Rights Council's determination to brand Israel a racist, apartheid state prove that the Soviet Cold War narrative remains alive and well. Most Western nations also still slavishly follow the Soviet programme.
Britain, for example, already aligned with Arab states against Israel because of both oil and antisemitism among influential politicians and officials, was more than willing from the start to swallow the Soviet invention of a struggle between Palestinian nationalism and Jewish oppression, hook, line and sinker. Today you will not hear any statement about Israel from any government official or minister that does not echo the KGB's line.
Increasing media-driven erosion of popular support for Israel in the US, and the suppurating divisions it causes, are evidence of the Soviet ghosts' success against their primary target: America.
The chief victims, however, have been Palestinian Arabs, whose lives have been worsened; and Jews in the diaspora who have suffered immeasurable antisemitism based on Soviet-initiated propaganda. The former may not have been intended but would have been of no concern to Moscow; the latter was very much part of the plan.
Israelis of course have paid a great price from KGB-inspired terrorism and propaganda, but have survived and flourished even under such enormous pressure. North Vietnamese General Giap, who once advised Arafat as we have seen, has an explanation for this, as recounted by Dr Eran Lerman, former Israeli deputy national security adviser. According to Giap:
"The Palestinians are always coming here and saying to me, 'You expelled the French and the Americans. How do we expel the Jews?' I tell them that the French went back to France and the Americans to America. But the Jews have nowhere to go. You will not expel them."
Colonel Richard Kemp is a former British Army Commander. He was also head of the international terrorism team in the U.K. Cabinet Office and is now a writer and speaker on international and military affairs. He is a Jack Roth Charitable Foundation Fellow at Gatestone Institute.