By Rod Such. This article was first published in Electronic Intifada.
“Facing clear evidence of peril, we cannot wait for the final proof — the smoking gun — that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud,” US President George W. Bush said in 2002 as he set the stage for an invasion of Iraq.
The premise he invoked was that if a country believes it faces an imminent threat, a preemptive attack against that threat is tantamount to an act of self-defense.
An earlier use of this “anticipatory self-defense” doctrine occurred when Israel tried to justify its 1967 War against Egypt, Syria and Jordan. Many people still believe Israel’s claim to self-defense was justified when actually it was just as fraudulent as the Bush administration’s “evidence” that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction.
In The Six-Day War and Israeli Self-Defense (Cambridge University Press, 2013), John Quigley, professor of international law at Ohio State University, examines what actually happened in 1967 and how the misrepresentation of events resulted in giving credence to the doctrine of pre-emptive war. Quigley’s re-examination follows the release of documents declassified in recent years by the governments of France, Russia, Britain and the United States, all of which were involved in monitoring the simmering conflict between Syria, Egypt and Israel.
Quigley notes that many international law specialists have simply ignored the evidence showing that Israel’s claim of self-defense has been thoroughly undermined by those declassified documents. Israel’s decision to invade the Sinai Peninsula came not because it felt threatened but because it saw an opportunity to destroy the Egyptian army.
Ignoring these facts is not merely academic, Quigley argues. Because Israel’s invasion of Egypt has never been labeled an act of aggression, the United Nations Charter has been undermined.
Article 51 of that charter allows a country to seek UN approval for military action only in the event of an actual attack. The legacy of the 1967 War was not only an expanded Zionist colonization of Palestine but also an international legal framework, in which wars of aggression can be disguised as wars of self-defense.
Moreover, Israel’s insistence on its “right of self-defense” in 1967, Quigley shows, has enabled it to maintain a position of strength in so-called peace negotiations with the Palestinians. During the talks leading to the 1993 Oslo accords, Israel ensured that any discussion of how it came to occupy the West Bank (including East Jerusalem), Gaza and the Golan Heights was off-limits.
Quigley argues that this was to guarantee that only bilateral negotiations, in which the Palestinians were the weaker party, would occur.
Ehud Barak, then Israel’s prime minister, alluded to the importance of this strategy following the failed 2000 Camp David talks when he remarked, “In 1967, although we were the ones to fire the first shot, the world saw us as trying to free ourselves of strangulation by our neighbors … and our war enjoyed broad legitimacy.”
Quigley discusses in great detail how it came about that Israel fired the first shot, initially lied about it by claiming the opposite, and then cultivated a narrative of anticipatory self-defense as post facto justification.
“We decided to attack”
What’s remarkable is how candidly various Israeli officials came to acknowledge Israel’s responsibility for starting the war.
For example, in arguing for an Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, on the grounds that an attack on Israel might come from there, Menachem Begin, then Israel’s prime minister, admitted, “In June 1967, we again had a choice. The Egyptian army concentrations in the Sinai approaches do not prove that [Egyptian president Gamal Abdel] Nasser was really about to attack us. We must be honest with ourselves. We decided to attack him.”
Similarly, Michael Bar-Zohar, press spokesperson for the Israeli defense ministry in 1967, later conceded that “Egypt was not preparing to make war.”
The picture that emerges from statements by Israeli military leaders Yitzhak Rabin, Ariel Sharon, Matti Peled and others is that Nasser had recklessly left the Egyptian army exposed, presenting Israel with the opportunity to destroy it, an opportunity that Israel’s general staff eagerly sought to exploit. In Rabin’s opinion, Nasser’s threat to close the Strait of Tiran to Israeli-flag vessels furthermore signaled that Israel’s military deterrence was weak, and Rabin wanted to re-establish it.
Green light from America?
Nevertheless, the United States and other Western governments warned Israel not to attack first. What was needed, said a member of the Israeli cabinet that approved the Israeli invasion, was an “alibi.”
Cabinet minister Yigal Allon suggested simply making up a story that Egypt had just attacked, and Defense Minister Moshe Dayan concurred, saying “For the first 24 hours, we have to be the victims.” The alibi turned out to be a claim that Egyptian artillery shelled several Israeli border towns and that Israel detected the movement of the Egyptian army and warplanes toward Israel.
None of it was true.
Quigley also discusses recently declassified US documents showing that the Central Intelligence Agency and the military had advised the administration of President Lyndon Johnson that Egyptian forces in the Sinai were in a defensive position and were not marshaling forces for an invasion of Israel.
At the same time, he highlights the duplicity of the US government in recounting how Meir Amit, then the head of the Israeli spy agency Mossad, received assurances from Defense Secretary Robert McNamara that the United States would not be greatly upset if Israel succeeded in destroying the Egyptian army.
That was the “green light” Israel sought before attacking.
The story Quigley tells unmasks decades of Israeli propaganda. Given that Israel has initiated every one of the wars it has engaged in, with the exception of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, it is apparent that the people of Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine and Syria are the ones who live in a “tough neighborhood” dominated by a hegemonic, US-backed colonizer.
Rod Such is a former editor for World Book and Encarta encyclopedias. He is active with Americans United for Palestinian Human Rights, Jewish Voice for Peace-Portland Chapter and the Seattle Mideast Awareness Campaign.