Recently discovered documents show Israeli leaders were worried that evidence would come out that Israel’s 1967 attack on the USS Liberty was intentional.
The Liberty was a Navy electronics surveillance ship operating in international waters during the Six-Day War. Israeli forces perpetrated an extended air and sea assault on the ship that killed 34 Americans, injured 175, and damaged the ship beyond repair. Afterward, Israel claimed the assault was an accident and provided $6 million in compensation for the loss of the $40 million ship. (More information here.)
According to the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz, Israeli historian Adam Raz recently examined hundreds of documents related to the Liberty that had been posted by Israeli State Archives.
(Raz is author of The Battle Over the Bomb,” available only in Hebrew. He also is reported to have written “a fascinating article about Israel’s nuclear secrets in last week’s Hebrew Haaretz supplement.”)
Ha’aretz reports that Raz is “fully aware of the fact that the ‘smoking gun’ won’t be found in the papers in the State Archives, because if Israel really had intended to hit the ship, that would have been known only to a handful of people.”
One of the documents Raz did find is an Israeli Foreign Ministry communication sent from New York to Jerusalem. Ha’aretz quotes the document:
“Menashe [Israel’s code name for US Ambassador to the UN Arthur Goldberg*] informed us we had better be very careful… The reason is apparently that the Americans have findings that show our pilots were in fact aware the ship was American.”
And later: “Menashe believes there is a recording on the ship of the conversations between the ship and our pilots, in which the ship’s crew said the ship is American. Menashe says that, in his opinion, our only chance of getting out of the crisis is to punish someone for negligence.”
In another document, the Israeli Embassy in Washington writes to the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem under the heading “Urgent.”
“We must change the above mentioned letter [to the U.S.], because we certainly won’t be able to say there is no basis for the accusation that the identity of the ship was determined by Israeli planes prior to the attack.”
Other documents show Israeli preparations for the U.S. investigation and the American demands for compensation that were to follow. A telegram from the Israeli Embassy in Washington to the Foreign Ministry said:
“The issue has turned into a malignant wound, which involves serious dangers for all of our relationships on all levels here, whose friendship was ours until now and which are crucial to our status in the United States. In other words, the president, the Pentagon, public opinion and the intelligence community.”
An Israeli Foreign Ministry letter warned:
“In the grave situation that has been created, the only way to soften the result is for us to be able to announce to the U.S. government already today that we intend to prosecute people for this disaster. We have to publicize that in Israel already tonight. This activity is the only way to create the impression, both to the U.S. government and the public here, that the attack on the ship was not the result of malicious intent by the Israeli government – I repeat, the Israeli government – or authorized groups in the IDF. For obvious reasons, it is crucial that our announcement about prosecuting those who are to blame be publicized before – I repeat, before – the publication of the American report here.”
Ha’aretz reports that the papers “also contain several ‘amusing’ anecdotes, such as the description of a U.S. Independence Day party.” (This was presumably at the U.S. Embassy in Malta, where the ship was being repaired and bodies of dead crewmen were being removed before the ship could make its way back to the U.S.) An Israeli Foreign Ministry document states:
“I was presented to the commander of the USS Liberty, which is here for repairs. He spoke freely about what happened and expressed his full confidence that it was a tragic mistake. When asked in my presence how long the ship’s trip to the United States would take, he replied with a smile, ‘About two weeks – unless we encounter Israeli planes again.’”