Despite the fact that the war against Iraq is presented also as aimed to protect Israel from Sadam’s aggressive intentions, Israeli public opinion is not convinced that the war is needed. A new poll shows that only 46% support waging the war without international legitimacy, and 43% oppose it. In addition, a new coalition of peace organizations has been formed to join the world protest on February 15. Apparently the Israelis know something about preemptive wars that President Bush ignores. I would suggest learning some lessons from the Israeli experience.
Israel has waged two wars that were defined as preemptive: The 1967 War, named The Six Days War, and the Lebanon War in 1982. In both cases, Israel had serious reasons to assume it was going to be attacked, a hundred times more so than the US’s current concern about its security. In 1967, Gamal Abdel Nasser closed the Tiran Straits, Israel’s only southern outlet to the sea. He also asked the UN to withdraw the forces camped in the Sinai Desert to separate between Israel and Egypt. Nasser kept escalating his verbal attacks against Israel, and threatening military moves were made by both Egypt and Syria. In response, Israel launched a preemptive war.
In 1982, the Lebanese border was quiet, following a ceasefire agreement between Israel and the PLO which held for about a year, but Israel had intelligence that PLO was fortifying its position in Southern Lebanon and preparing for a future military confrontation. Using a dubious pretext the IDF invaded Lebanon, headed by Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, who lied to the Israeli public and government, claiming that his intentions were purely defensive, i.e., take over Southern Lebanon to prevent Katyusha missile attacks against Israel. Within two days, the IDF was deployed on the outskirts of Beirut, which was kept under siege for two and half months; its entry into the city was blocked by pressure from Israeli and international public opinion concerned about the potential catastrophe that would ensue from a military invasion into a city where tens of thousands of fighters were entrenched. Following the withdrawal of PLO forces from Beirut, the notorious massacre at the Sabra and Shatila Palestinian refugee camps pushed out on the streets almost 10% of Israel’s citizens in an unprecedented mass demonstration against their government. Sharon was fired from his job as the result of the conclusions of an inquiry committee regarding his ministerial responsibility in the affair.
The outcomes of both preemptive wars are well known: Both ended in a military victory and a moral and diplomatic defeat. Israel’s pre-1967 image as a peace-seeking nation has been tainted by the seizure of the West Bank from Jordan, the Sinai Desert from Egypt, and the Golan Heights from Syria. The impressive achievements of the peace treaty with Egypt and the withdrawal from Sinai in 1982 were tainted by the capture of Lebanon a month later. Getting out of both proved difficult: it took the IDF 18 years to extract itself out of Lebanon, and it has yet to extract itself from the West Bank, Gaza Strip and the Golan Heights. Israel’s activities in these occupied territories are perceived as illegal not only by their inhabitants, but also by the majority of international public opinion and a significant share of Israeli citizens, including soldiers. Israel constantly commits illegal acts in order to maintain the occupation, while the local population and the majority of international public opinion perceive acts of resistance to the occupation as legitimate. Moreover, the preemptive war engenders new security problems, due to the illegitimacy of the occupation. The most obvious example is the Yom Kippur War (1973), when Israel was unable to launch a renewed preemptive war in order to defend its presence in the Sinai, and had to sustain the first blow, which caused the highest casualties toll since its establishment.
My suggested conclusion is that there are fundamental reasons for the predictable failure of preemptive wars:
1. Even when the threat is serious and real (unlike the current case of Iraq), the aggressor is invariably the country that initiates the attack, and thus de-legitimized. The US’s current problems with international public opinion and its own citizenry would undoubtedly exacerbate once it launches the attack and is perceived as the aggressor, unlike in the 1991 war, in which Iraq had attacked Kuwait.
2. Preemptive wars are not waged against an aggressive army that can be crushed and forced to stop the aggression, but against a hostile regime that is said to foster aggressive intentions. Hence, preemptive wars are waged against the sovereignty of the attacked state. In order to extricate the hostile regime a full occupation of civilian population is necessary, and withdrawal before a new and stable regime is put in place becomes very difficult, due to the danger that a new hostile regime could rise once again. Preemptive wars therefore necessitate a permanent deployment of foreign military power in occupied areas. Israel remained in Lebanon for 18 years for fear of Hizballa takeover, and has already marked the 35th anniversary of the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza as a result of its fated attempt to avert Palestinian independence.
3. Preemptive wars create mounting protests by international public opinion and among the citizens of the aggressive state. The use of violence is perceived as illegitimate, a fact that undermines the fighting capacities of the military and prevents the establishment of a friendly regime once the takeover has been completed. The lack of legitimacy subverts the soldiers’ conviction about the necessity of the war and feeds the resistance in the occupied territories, widely supported by the local population.
All these obstacles are bound to arise in the planned preemptive war that the Bush Administration attempts to launch against Sadam Hussein’s regime. All the US’s military and technological might and its dominant global economic position would make no difference. There are no just wars, unless they are defensive wars perceived as vital for saving life. Soon it would be Bush, rather than Sadam Hussein, who would be putting the world in danger. American aggression would no longer be regarded as an expression of its might, but as a public admission of weakness. Having already exposed the underbelly of the world’s only superpower, Osama Bin Laden would soon become the great winner of the war, and the religious belief that God is on his side will only grow stronger. Again, there is a lesson to be learned from Israel’s experience with the rise of Hizballa in Lebanon after 1982 and of Hamas and Islamic Jihad among the Palestinians in the 1990’s. Military occupation is not the way to fight terrorism; it is the sure way to boost and encourage it. You have been warned.
LEV GRINBERG is a political sociologist and senior lecturer at Ben Gurion University. He can be reached at: email@example.com