Who Says Sovereign Rights Have Limitations?
Center for Israel Education

Who Says Sovereign Rights Have Limitations?

Advocates of BDS are opposed not only to Israel’s retention of territories, but to its outright sovereignty.

Ken Stein

Ken Stein, an Emory professor of modern Israeli history, is the president of the Center for Israel Education (www.israeled.org) and leads Emory’s Institute for the Study of Modern Israel.

Placing Jewish destiny into Jewish hands is the reason Zionism emerged at the end of the 19th century. Acquiring political power to promote Jewish security is how a Jewish state was created. Using accumulated political and military attributes has sustained Jewish sovereignty. Deciding when to exercise sovereignty has been a hard-fought prerogative.

In May and June 1967, after Israelis heard Arab leaders say, “Our goal is clear: to wipe Israel off the face of the map; we shall, G-d willing, meet in Tel Aviv and Haifa” and “If Israel embarks on an aggression against Syria or Egypt … our basic objective will be to destroy Israel,” and seeing Egypt fill Sinai with Egyptian soldiers and blockade access to Israel’s southern port of Eilat, the Israeli government chose to exercise its sovereign right of self-defense.

Israel chose to apply a doctrine of pre-emption: “Do unto others before they do unto you.” It fit ideologically with a broader Israeli policy of “never again” — that is, putting Jews into a state of affairs where their security and existence would be dependent on others.

Israel had asked the United States and Great Britain to arrange for an international flotilla to break Egypt’s blockade of Israel’s southern port, but waiting more than two weeks meant losing the initiative of surprise against the Arab states if war came.

On June 3, 1967, U.S. Secretary of State Dean Rusk told American ambassadors in the Middle East: “The holy war psychology of the Arab world is matched by an apocalyptic psychology within Israel. Israel may make a decision that it must resort to force to protect its vital interests. You should not assume that the United States can order Israel not to fight for what it considers to be its most vital interests.”

Two days later, Israel did. And in six days Israel unexpectedly increased its size fivefold; it gained Sinai, East Jerusalem, the Golan Heights, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. In choosing the time and place for the war, Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol said on June 12, “we are entitled to determine what true and vital interests of our country are and how they shall be secured.”

Several times thereafter, Israel chose to apply a doctrine of pre-emption again:

  • In June 1981, Israeli forces attacked and destroyed the Iraqi reactor.
  • In August 2005, the Sharon government withdrew unilaterally from the Gaza Strip.
  • In September 2007, Israel secretly destroyed a Syrian military facility thought to be a nuclear site.

In exercising sovereign rights, Israel chose to protect its citizens. Israel used its sovereign prerogative to relinquish land it gained in war — Sinai — to obtain a negotiated agreement: the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty.

Question: Do the international community, the European Union, the United Nations, and Jews and non-Jews worldwide have the right to tell the government of Israel how much of what lands in the West Bank, Golan Heights or East Jerusalem to relinquish and when?

The answer may depend on whether one classifies the June 1967 war as a defensive act or an aggressive action. Fifty years ago, Secretary of State Dean Rusk said Israel had vital interests to protect.

What seems evident today is that staunch advocates of BDS — that is, those who want to apply boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel — are opposed not only to Israel’s retention of territories gained in the June 1967 war, but also to Israel’s outright sovereignty. Period.

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