Preemption has always been part of Israel’s military doctrine

Specialists distinguish between a preemptive strike and a preventive war, but for our purposes both are preemption.

Defense Minister Naftali Bennett during a recent visit to the Syrian border  (photo credit: ARIEL HERMONI / DEFENSE MINISTRY)
Defense Minister Naftali Bennett during a recent visit to the Syrian border
This newspaper credited new Defense Minister Naftali Bennett with creating a new “pillar” of Israel’s military strategy. According to the writer, Yaakov Katz, “preemption” has been the fruit of Bennett’s service of his few dozen days in the position.
This is an unusual deviation by Katz from his constant reliable and well-informed positions both as a reporter, editor and author. After all, the doctrine of preemption is in the textbook of every army. It is dated as we see below from biblical times and in ancient Greek history.
Specialists distinguish between a preemptive strike and a preventive war, but for our purposes both are preemption. After all, preemptive strikes are usually the first step in the launching of war by the side that considers itself in danger of attack from the other.
In an article titled “Preemptive Strikes and Preventive Wars: A Historian’s Perspective” by Barry Strauss in Strategica (Issue 44, August 2017) this historian calls the war launched by the Spartan League against Athens and its allies 2,600 years ago “the granddaddy of all preventive wars.”
The Midrash Raba, written over 1,000 years ago, tells us to go ahead, strike first: “He who rises to kill you, preempt and kill him.” This dictum is based on biblical precedents running back about 3,000 years.
At the beginning of the modern era, 400 years ago, the Dutch philosopher Hugo Grotius wrote that a state has the right of self-defense which includes using force to forestall an attack.
If you want more recent examples: In 1941, the brilliant Japanese Admiral Isroku Yamamoto commanded the totally effective surprise attack on the US Pacific fleet and aircraft on the Pearl Harbor base in Hawaii. The fleet was crippled. The US lost 20 American naval vessels, including eight battleships, and more than 300 airplanes. More than 2,400 Americans died in the attack, including civilians, and another 1,000 people were wounded.
In Israel, David Ben-Gurion’s doctrine for the new state’s military strategy began with “deterrence.” The doctrine prescribed never permitting enemy forces to engage on Israeli territory. That is, any war Israel fights should be fought on the enemy’s land. We do not possess strategic depth.
That strategy was employed by the IDF in the Sinai campaign of 1956, in which Israel’s armed forces swept through to the Suez Canal in 100 hours. Egyptian losses are thought to have been several thousand dead and wounded, while 6,000 prisoners were captured. Immense quantities of armored vehicles, trucks, guns and other military equipment were seized.
FOR ISRAEL, this was a preemptive war since Egyptian president Col. Gamal Abdel Nasser was importing vast quantities of arms from the Soviet Union via Czechoslovakia. Israel would have been outweighed in tanks, artillery, aircraft and other equipment as the Egyptian forces absorbed them. Because Britain and France invaded Egypt a couple of days later, acting out to take back control of the canal from Nasser who had nationalized it, Israel’s preemptive role is sometimes seen less clearly than Israelis do.
If there is any debate over whether that was a preemptive war or not, there is the absolutely clear example of the Six Day War of June 1967. The truth is, though, that the IDF General Staff at the time were fearful of an Egyptian-Syrian first-strike, and preparations were made for mass graves being dug for anticipated civilian casualties. Fortunately, Israel struck first and within a few hours, more than 400 Egyptian and Jordanian planes had been destroyed, providing Israeli with air superiority. Israel’s air attack and simultaneous land invasion into Sinai are now textbook cases taught in military academies across the world.
I could rest my case here. But we have more examples of Israeli preemption. I quote the military historian, in the same issue of Strategica cited above: “Perhaps the most successful preemptive strike in history was also launched by the Israelis in June 1981 that wrecked the Osirak reactor that the French were building for Saddam Hussein. Using exquisite intelligence, F-16 fighter bombers, escorted by F-15 fighters, attacked at precisely the time when Iraqi antiaircraft crews were taking their meals.”
This was an expression of the Begin doctrine, namely that Israel will not permit the nuclearization of any Middle Eastern state. The policy was similarly enforced under prime minister Ehud Olmert in Israel’s strike against the Syrian nuclear reactor in September 2007. This tale is well related by Yaakov Katz in his book Shadow Strike (New York, St. Martin’s Press, 2019).
In the past six years, as the Syrian civil war waxed and then waned, Israel carried out over 100 strikes against Iranian/Hezbollah and Syrian targets. These are preemptive strikes to prevent transfer of arms to Hezbollah, to take out Iranian commanders and forces approaching the Israeli Golan Heights or to strike Syrian anti-aircraft capabilities.
Thus, at this point, we can safely assert that Naftali Bennett did not add the pillar of preemption. At most he reiterated a strategy that has existed probably since early man was threatened by another, but certainly has been Israel’s policy almost from day one.
The writer worked in the offices of prime ministers David Ben-Gurion and Levi Eshkol. He has written widely in the press and in his books on Israel’s political history, Israeli policies and politics and Israel-Diaspora relations.