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In the Foreign Policy special report “Unconventional Wisdom”, a series of essays purporting to challenge conventional beliefs on a broad range of topics, Leslie H. Gelb asserts that with regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, “America Pressures Israel Plenty“. Gelb describes as “myths” the notion that Israelis “have been the main stumbling block to peace” and that the U.S. “has failed to use its influence to pressure Israel”. Examining Gelb’s argument in favor of the respective corollaries – that “Israel has a long and compelling history of making major concessions to Arabs”, and that the U.S. “has pushed and pulled Israel” in that direction at “each step” – is instructive.
The validity of the latter assertion depends upon that of the former, for which Gelb offers several ostensible examples: Israel’s return of the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt under the terms of the Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty of 1979, and repeated offers to return most of the West Bank to the Palestinians. The Sinai, writes Gelb, was “booty of a war it did not start and an act of territorial generosity unprecedented in modern history.” Gelb doesn’t name the war in which Israel conquered the Sinai for readers not familiar with the history. This is perhaps just as well, since it is difficult to reconcile the claim Israel “did not start” the June 1967 “Six Day War” with the completely uncontroversial fact that it was Israel who fired the first shot.
Gelb cannot be unaware of that fact, so presumably he is clinging here to the conventional wisdom that Israel’s surprise attack on Egypt was “preemptive”. It would be an understatement to say that there is scant evidentiary basis for the implication that Egypt had intended to launch an offensive war against Israel. Indeed, the documentary record contradicts that claim, its enormous and somewhat inexplicable popularity notwithstanding. When U.S. President Lyndon Johnson later asked Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser why he had amassed troops in the Sinai, Nasser replied, “Whether you believe it or not, we were in fear of an attack from Israel. We had been informed that the Israelis were massing troops on the Syrian border with the idea of first attacking Syria, there they did not expect to meet great resistance, and then commence their attack on the UAR.” Johnson had little cause to disbelieve Nasser’s explanation; he had been informed prior to the war by his Director of Central Intelligence Richard Helms that Israel could “defend successfully against simultaneous Arab attacks on all fronts … or hold on any three fronts while mounting successfully a major offensive on the fourth.” The CIA assessed that “Israel could almost certainly attain air supremacy over the Sinai Peninsula in less than 24 hours after taking the initiative or in two or three days if the UAR struck first.” The CIA also described Egypt’s military positions in the Sinai as a “defense line”.
Israel’s own intelligence assessment concurred with the U.S.’s that the likelihood of an Egyptian attack was slim. As current Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Michael B. Oren observes in his book Six Days of War, “By all reports Israel received from the Americans, and according to its own intelligence, Nasser had no interest in bloodshed.” In Israel’s own view, “Nasser would have to be deranged” to attack first, and war “could only come about if Nasser felt he had complete military superiority over the IDF, if Israel were caught up in a domestic crisis, and, most crucially, was isolated internationally—a most unlikely confluence.” Yitzhak Rabin, later Prime Minister, told Le Monde the year following the war, “I do not think Nasser wanted war. The two divisions he sent to the Sinai would not have been sufficient to launch an offensive war. He knew it and we knew it.” Prime Minister Menachem Begin similarly acknowledged that Israel’s war on Egypt in 1956 was a war of “choice” and that “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.”
Gelb in effect purports to challenge one series of “myths” by propagating others. But the historical accuracy of his argument – or lack thereof, rather – is not the only fallacy here. Gelb’s rejection of international law, implicit in his description of territorial gains as “booty” and the return of that territory as “concessions” and acts of “generosity”, is also instructive. The underlying assumption of these characterizations is that Israel had some kind of right or legitimate claim to that territory. Yet “the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war” is a well-established principle under international law. This principle is cited, for example, in United Nations Security Council Resolution 242 calling upon Israel to withdraw from territories it occupied during the ’67 war: the Egyptian Sinai Peninsula, the Syrian Golan Heights, and the Palestinian West Bank and Gaza Strip. As Dr. Norman Finkelstein (author most recently of ‘This Time We Went Too Far’ about the consequences of Israel’s ’08-’09 devastating invasion of Gaza) has observed, if one operates in a framework of what Israel is entitled to under international law, rather than in the framework of what Israel wants, then it becomes apparent that the number of “concessions” Israel has made in this regard has been precisely zero. Less than zero, actually. Returning to Gelb’s argument, consider Israel’s “generosity” in supposedly offering to return “more than 90 percent of the West Bank” – a demand for a major territorial concession from the Palestinians. Respecting international law, Gelb’s argument crumbles.
Gelb’s claim of U.S. “pressure” to get Israel to make “concessions” falls apart as a corollary, but is nevertheless worth further examination. He cites “President Barack Obama’s recent scolding of Israel over its West Bank settlements” as evidence. The issue of Israeli settlements –illegal under international law – has been ongoing since Obama took office, with this claim of “pressure” on Israel from his administration being a familiar refrain. The first chorus was heard shortly after coming into office when the administration initially called upon Israel to cease settlement activity in the interests of furthering peace talks with the Palestinian Authority. This request coincided with the announcement that under no circumstances would the U.S. consider scaling back U.S. support for Israel that effectively empowers Israel to carry on its policies of continued settlement expansion and ongoing occupation. The message was not lost upon the government of Benjamin Netanyahu.
The more recent incident of “pressure” Gelb refers to came in the form of an offer to reward Israel with 20 F-35 jet fighters and promises to protect Israel diplomatically, such as through use of the U.S. veto in the U.N. Security Council. In other words, a continuation of the status quo. (Consider the Obama administration’s vow to ensure that the findings and recommendations of the U.N. Goldstone report – which found that both Israel and Hamas had committed war crimes during Israel’s assault on Gaza – would not be endorsed by the Security Council, or its expressions of solidarity in response to Israel’s having killed nine peace activists in an illegal assault upon the humanitarian vessel the Mavi Marmara in international waters). All that was requested in return is that Israel would cease settlement expansion for 90 days, East Jerusalem, which the International Court of Justice has observed is “occupied Palestinian territory” under international law, excluded. Implicit in the terms of this proposal was that Israel could return to its illegal activities elsewhere in the West Bank after the allotted time, and yet retain the F-35s (courtesy of U.S. taxpayers) and continue to be assured of U.S. diplomatic support. Also revealing is the fact that there was no hint that if Israel refused this offer, the U.S. would stray from the status quo arrangement. The arms deal is expected to go forward despite the failure of talks (and despite the suspension of production of the F-35 line). In short, U.S. “pressure” consisted in this case of an offer to continue the U.S. policy of effectively rewarding Israel for violating international law, with ongoing illegal settlement construction in East Jerusalem and just a brief hiatus elsewhere in the West Bank, with it being well understood that if this offer is refused, the status quo will continue anyhow.
The actual facts and true nature of the U.S.-Israeli strategic partnership notwithstanding, Gelb still manages to express dismay that the “Arabs have not wanted to credit Washington’s role as a peacemaker because they think the United States is capable of exerting even more pressure on Israel.” Gasp! It is certainly true, as his next sentence declares, that “the American role has been real and substantial” – but not in the way Gelb intends it. The irony that in his ostensible effort to challenge faulty conventional wisdom, Gelb actually sticks very much to it should not be lost upon the reader.