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Why a false understanding of the ‘Six Day War’ still matters

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Yitzhak Rabin
Yitzhak Rabin

A review of The Six Day War and Israeli Self-Defense: Questioning the Legal Basis for Preventive War, by John Quigley. Cambridge University Press (2013) 284 pages; $14.89 Kindle ed.

Thomas Hobbes published Leviathan in 1651 at the end of the English Civil War.  In the state of nature, he famously quipped, the life of man is nasty, brutish, and short.  We are witnessing it in Syria today as ISIS fighters are pushing into a dysfunctional Iraq; we’ve witnessed it in Afghanistan these past 35 years.  Failed states are not a pretty sight.

Yet, a state of nature among sovereign states can be worse.  The 20th century witnessed vibrant, proud, and civilized nation states cause a conflagration that killed 75 million people with unfathomable barbarity. Countries will flex their muscles as pecking orders change. Take the competing claims over the Spratley Islands in the South China Sea.  How should these claims be resolved?  With China asserting its claim militarily in the face of a standoff with the U.S. Pacific fleet?  Or is it better to submit such disputed ownership of territory to the International Court of Justice for resolution?  The answer is obvious; it’s a chief reason why international law matters.

What Does a Commitment to International Law Require?

International law is comprised of a host of international customs; agreements; treaties; accords; charters; protocols; tribunals; memorandums; and more.  Much of the authority of this law has its basis in the United Nations Charter.  UN member states commit themselves to maintain international peace and security, and to promote fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion.  Member states pledge to settle their disputes by peaceful means and to refrain from resorting to violence against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state. UN Charter, Chapter I, Articles 2 & 3.  Israel and its neighbors are all signatories to the United Nations charter.  Egypt, Lebanon, and Syria were original signatories in October 1945.  Israel committed itself to its provisions on November 5, 1949, and Jordan joined on December 14, 1955.

Flouting Commitments Made

On June 5, 1967 Israel invaded Egypt, Jordan, and Syria and took possession of the Sinai Peninsula, the West Bank, Gaza, and the Golan Heights.  The accepted orthodoxy of this war, and the occupation that followed, is that it was justified because Egypt, Jordan, and Syria had massed troops “vastly outnumbering Israel” along the border, and that Israel, threatened with its very survival, launched a necessary pre-emptive attack on its neighbors, gaining a great and unexpected victory in just six days.  This is the official position of AIPAC.   Alan Dershowitz argues for this version of events with gusto in his “The Case for Israel” and at every opportunity.  Ari Shavit repeats this story in his book My Promised Land, where it fits well with his “concentric circles of threat” surrounding Israel.

In The Six Day War and Israeli Self-Defense: Questioning the Legal Basis for Preventive War, John Quigley, a professor of international law at Ohio State University, presents a clear and compelling case that the orthodox story is wrong. Quigley’s book draws on evidence recently declassified by the four main powers involved in the lead up to the war:  France, Britain, Russia, and the United States. He concludes that, contrary to the orthodox story, Israel’s army substantially outnumbered the Arab troops at the borders, and that Israel did not expect an attack. In short, Quigley asserts that Israel’s invasion of Egypt, Jordan, and Syria in 1967 cannot be justified as self-defense; Israel seized upon an opportunity to wage a war of aggression in violation of international law and in violation of the commitment Israel had made by joining the community of nations under the auspices of the UN Charter.

The Lead Up to War—Israel Sees an Opportunity

After the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 the belligerent parties executed armistice agreements, resulting in Israel asserting sovereignty over all areas within the green lines, and Jordan asserting sovereignty over the West Bank. Jordan’s annexation of the West Bank was officially recognized by Great Britain, and generally accepted, if not formally recognized, by the World community.  Between 1948 and 1967 Jordan administered the West Bank peacefully as an integral part of its Kingdom, and Jordan extended full citizenship to Palestinians living in the West Bank.  [See Gerson, Israel the West Bank and International Law, p. 79]

Quigley reviews how, throughout the 1950’s, cross-border violence was a common occurrence as military units of the displaced Palestinians raided Israel from Egypt, Jordan, and Syria.  Israel’s defense forces responded with counter-raids.  In 1956, of course, Israel, in conjunction with France and Britain, invaded Sinai.  Both the USSR and the United States denounced this invasion and pressured Israel, Britain, and France to withdraw.  Israel withdrew from Sinai in the spring of 1957 and the United Nations installed multinational military units to monitor the Israel-Egypt cease-fire line.

By 1966, says Quigley, a more assertive Syrian government was providing additional support to the Palestinians for an armed struggle against Israel.  Syria became a base of operations for Fatah, and between early 1965 and June 1967, Fatah launched more than one hundred attacks into Israel, some with fatal consequences.  Yitzhak Rabin, Chief of Staff of the IDF at that time, deemed the raids emanating from Syria as more consequential because he felt they were state-supported, unlike raids originating in Egypt, Jordan, or Lebanon.

On November 11, 1966 a land mine killed three soldiers near the West Bank Jordanian village of Samu. In response, the IDF sent tanks and troops to Samu, and when Jordanian troops attempted to intercept, the IDF forces killed several civilians and about 12 Jordanian soldiers.  Once in control of the village, the IDF spent four hours blowing up one hundred houses in the village of Samu.

During the first four months of 1967 Fatah raids along the Jordanian border intensified, as did cross-border clashes with Syria, some deliberately provoked by Israel.  Quigley quotes Moshe Dayan, soon to become defense minister:  “We would send a tractor to plow the earth in some plot you couldn’t do anything with, in a demilitarized zone, knowing in advance that the Syrians would start shooting…. And then we’d fire back, and later send in the Air Force.”  By mid May, it was the assessment of the American Ambassador in Egypt, Richard Parker, that Israel was threatening to take more aggressive reprisal actions against Syria.

Quigley presents evidence that Nasser increased troop strength in the Sinai in response to Israel’s threats against Syria, and Syria’s request that Egypt do more. In mid-May, however, Nasser assured the Soviet Ambassador that Egypt would move militarily against Israel only if Israel were to invade Syria. Although sympathizing with Israel’s need to stop cross-border raids originating in Syria, Quigley reports that Walter Rostow, Lyndon Johnson’s security adviser, counseled that the United States try to restrain Israel.  Right up until Israel’s surprise attack on June 5, 1967, both the United States and the USSR worked behind the scenes to calm the situation and urged that neither party attack.

Britain’s ambassador to Israel, Michael Hadow, after meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol reported to London that Israel agreed with the British assessment “that Nasser’s new posture posed no real threat.” Nevertheless, Israel responded with additional deployments of its own in the south.

In connection with the increase of its troop strength in Sinai, Egypt asked the UN to withdraw its observer force from the area.  However, says Quigley, Egypt, the UN and the United States all offered to Israel that the observer force could be stationed in the Sinai on Israel’s side of the line.  Israel refused.

On May 21, Egypt briefly sent two Mig-21 jets over Israeli airspace, making a low pass over Israel’s nuclear complex at Dimona in the Negev desert.  The planes departed before Israeli jets could scramble.

As tensions mounted, Jordan’s King Hussein became concerned that Israel might take advantage of the situation to grab the West Bank. Hussein reasoned that “Israel has certain long range military and economic requirements and certain traditional religious and historic aspirations” that “they have not yet satisfied or realized” (per Quigley’s citation to Findley Burns, the U.S. ambassador to Jordan). And, indeed, as Ezer Weizman, then Chief of Operations of the IDF General Staff, later recorded in his memoirs:  the IDF Central Command was discussing the possibility that Israel might find an opportunity to take the West Bank.

Israel anticipated that Egypt might attempt to curb shipping at Sharm el-Sheikh.  Both Rabin and Dayan contemplated that if Egypt closed the Straits of Tiran to shipping, Israel would seize the opportunity to attack Egypt.  Their main concern was that the Security Council might call for a cease-fire before they achieved their objectives.  Nasser obliged on May 22, announcing that he would close the Straits of Tiran to Israeli flagged shipping and other vessels carrying strategic goods to Eilat.  However, Quigley indicates that there was also an indication that any vessel accompanied by a warship would be exempted.

Not Justified Self-Defense Under International Law

Quigley concludes that the facts of May-June 1967 did not justify a pre-emptive strike by Israel in accordance with international law.  There was no existential threat as the AIPAC video, above, asserts.  Closing the Straits of Tiran posed no real threat to Israel in the short term, and both Britain and the United States were working diligently to solve the Tiran Straits issue.  Here are just a few of the points reviewed by Quigley that seem sufficient to make the case:

  • In April 1967 Robert McNamara reported to President Johnson that “the present and prospective military balance in the Middle East strongly favors Israel” and that “Israel will be militarily unchallengeable by any combination of Arab states at least during the next five years.” This was clear to everybody.
  • On May 25, General Ariel Sharon, who then commanded Israel’s troops in the south, told Prime Minister Eshkol and Yigal Allon (labor minister) that Israel had a historic opportunity to destroy Egypt’s army, and that Egypt could be attacked under circumstances that appeared defensive.
  • In the vicinity of the borders, Israel’s troops (~280,000) substantially outnumbered the troops of the Arab states (~117,000).  According to a CIA assessment, Egypt had only increased its troops in the Sinai from 30,000 men to 50,000.  This was not sufficient to mount an offensive, and Israel knew it.  In 1968, Yitzhak Rabin gave an interview to Eric Rouleau at Le Monde, stating: “I do not believe that Nasser wanted war…. The two divisions he sent into Sinai on May 14 would not have been enough to unleash an offensive against Israel.  He knew it and we knew it.”
  • In 1972, Israeli General Mattityahu Peled told an audience at the Zavta political-literary club in Tel Aviv that the idea that Israel was fighting for its existence was “a bluff born and developed only after the war.”  He went on: “All those stories that were put out about the great danger that we faced because of the smallness of our territory, an argument advanced only after the war was over, were never taken into consideration in our calculations before the hostilities.”
  • In 1982 when Menachem Begin was attempting to persuade the country to support his invasion of Lebanon, he explained that the reason Israel needed to invade Lebanon was not an immediate concern about attacks from Lebanon, but a need to ensure against possible attacks in the future.  Begin said that the same aim had led Israel to initiate the 1967 war:  “In June 1967, we again had a choice. The Egyptian Army concentrations in the Sinai approaches do not prove that Nasser was really about to attack us.  We must be honest with ourselves.  We decided to attack him.” Begin had been in the cabinet in 1967, as a minister without portfolio.

Why It Still Matters

As Jerome Slater observed in his review of Shavit’s book:  “It is hard to think of another long-standing conflict in which the irrefutable facts, long well-known to anyone who has seriously studied the issue, seem to matter less than in the Arab-Israeli conflict.” Although the true facts about the 1967 war have been known to many from the outset, and have been reported in Le Monde and elsewhere, this has not dampened enthusiasm for the “justified self-defense” story.  The facts propagated by Israel have not been critically examined by the world community.

Having the wrong facts is not helpful.  Critically, from Quigley’s standpoint as a scholar of international law, the erroneously assumed facts have allowed The Six Day War to become a “prime example” of the use of defensive war.  As a result, says Quigley, the law of pre-emptive war has been unduly expanded in a manner that is counterproductive to the goal of preserving peace between nations.  Israel relies on the false example of The Six Day War to assert a right of self-defense in invading Lebanon in 1982.  It is the corrupted example of The Six Day War that makes plausible the case for invading Iraq based on putative “weapons of mass destruction.”  It is the corrupted example of The Six Day War that makes it possible to speak of pre-emptive strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities.

With respect to Israel’s occupation, the false narrative that Israel faced an existential threat in May and June 1967—because “can this hatred ever be overcome” as Shavit suggests in his book—poisons any hope of ever finding a solution.  It’s important to have the real facts seep into public consciousness because if The Six Day War is more properly seen as a continuation of the War of Independence in 1948-49, it changes the frame of discussion.

As the United States falls away as a peace broker because it is not politically able to take necessary steps to pressure both sides equally, we could do worse than to refocus everyone on the laudable aspirational goals embodied in the UN Charter.

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Just to say what I think Thomas Hobbes’ philosophy implies. He absolutely did not say that human life actually is nasty, brutish and short. He said that it would be like that were we ‘in the state of nature’ – did we not live in civil societies where life is… Read more »

Another, not dissimilar myth and false understanding is silly and self serving – the way that the nationalists deal with the Nakba. Benny Morris is at least realistic. However, since he is “revisionist”, it means that the “standard” story is not Morris’ – and that there was no Nakba. The… Read more »

Pardon me for still hammering at Presbyterian criticisms of Zionism Unsettled. Under the core argument that “false understandings matter,” with which I could not agree more, Nikles’ review notes that Ari Shavit repeats . . .The accepted orthodoxy of this war, and the occupation that followed, is that it was… Read more »

Hmmm!?!? Presuming that this is a fair summary of Quigley’s work ( a man I respect), then I’m not sure what evidence “recently declassified by the four main powers involved in the lead up to the war: France, Britain, Russia, and the United States” actually adds to the traditional picture… Read more »

I was in college when the ’67 war broke out. Initially there was the story put forth by Israel, and widely believed by all, that Israel was suddenly attacked by Arab states. Then, as Israel was winning, it was said they were winning against all odds. A miracle, it was.… Read more »