The Notion of a "Pre-Emptive War:" the Six Day War Revisited

By Kurtulus, Ersun N. | The Middle East Journal, Spring 2007 | Go to article overview

The Notion of a "Pre-Emptive War:" the Six Day War Revisited


Kurtulus, Ersun N., The Middle East Journal


The article presents a critical assessment of the widespread conceptualization of the June 1967 War between Israel and its neighboring Arab states as a pre-emptive war both in academic and non-academic writing. Tracing the origins of the notion of pre-emptive war to international law, the article identifies three necessary conditions for such a war to be classified as pre-emptive: acute crisis combined with high alert levels; vulnerable offensive weapons; and strategic parity as regards to offensive capabilities. On the basis of a re-interpretation of the evidence produced by previous research, this article argues that the circumstances surrounding the Six Day War did not fulfill some of these necessary conditions. This conclusion also is supported by evidence related to the Israeli decision to launch a first strike.

The June 1967 War1 is not only a turning point in the contemporary history of the Middle East, but also a milestone in a conceptual development: namely, the gradual broadening of the concept of "pre-emptive war" that culminated in the use of this term to depict the war conducted by the United States and its allies in Iraq, and later to refer to a possible attack, at the time of writing, on the nuclear facilities of Iran.

On June 5, 1967, after three weeks of tension, the Israeli Air Force attacked air bases in Egypt, Syria, and Jordan, and destroyed approximately 80% of the warplanes of these states on the ground. During the military operations that followed the initial strike, Israeli troops swiftly occupied the Sinai Peninsula, the Gaza Strip, the West Bank of Jordan, and the Golan Heights. In what was probably one of the first employments of this concept to describe a conventional war, the Israeli attack was regarded as a pre-emptive strike, first in the minutes of the Israeli government,2 and later by the general public. This view is now rather well established3 and, as a general conceptualization of this war, it has been presented in various contexts: books on weapon systems;4 textbooks on international law;5 scholarly study of surprise attacks;6 monographs of political philosophers;7 quantitative research on war;8 reference books;9 and even travel guides.10 Leaving aside issues emanating from the normative justification and the defensive connotations embedded in the notion of a pre-emptive war, such a conceptualization of the Six Day War raises two important questions:

* What is a pre-emptive war and on what basis or criteria can it be differentiated from other types of first strikes, such as surprise attack, preventive strike, or unintentional war?

* To the extent that it is possible to identify a set of criteria that would enable identification of pre-emptive strikes, to what extent do the circumstances surrounding the Six Day War fulfill these criteria?

On the face of it, certain factors could be pointed out to support the view that the June 1967 War was a pre-emptive war. Deployment of some 80,000 Egyptian troops on the Sinai peninsula," agitation of the Arab opinion with calls for the destruction of Israel, the ensuing fear and alarm among the Israeli public,12 and perhaps most importantly, conclusion of a defense treaty that comprised all of Israel's neighbors with the exception of Lebanon just before the war, easily could give the impression of an imminent attack by the Arab states and thus open up the way for the interpretation of the Israeli first strike as a pre-emption of that attack. However, in-depth analysis of the circumstances surrounding the Israeli strike produces a different and more complicated picture. In what follows I shall first map out the difficulties involved in the concept of pre-emptive war and, by means of logical deduction, develop a set of criteria on the basis of the use of this concept in the nuclear strategic thinking of the Cold War period. This will be followed by an evaluation with reference to these criteria of the evidence produced by previous research about the circumstances surrounding the outbreak of the Six Day War. …

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