What caused U.N. Resolution 242 to fail?

On Nov. 22, 1967, the United Nations Security Council’s five permanent and 10 temporary members unanimously passed Resolution 242. The aim: To establish a “just and lasting peace” in the Middle East.

Israeli fighter jets had launched a preemptive strike against the Egyptian air force 5 1/2 months previously, early in the morning on June 5. The air attack was followed by a ground assault, as Israeli forces simultaneously engaged Egyptian troops that had massed in the Sinai, and Syrian soldiers in the Golan Heights. Jordanian forces then attacked Israel from the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Within six days, the war was over. Israel had advanced as far as the Suez Canal, taken the Golan Heights, and pushed the Jordanian army out of East Jerusalem and the West Bank. By the time a ceasefire was signed, the landmass under Israeli control had expanded from 8,000 to 26,000 square miles.

On the first day of the Six-Day War, Israel’s minister in Washington told President Lyndon B. Johnson’s national security advisor that Israel did not intend to enlarge its borders as a result of the war. On June 13, the Israeli Cabinet agreed that Israeli forces would withdraw to the pre-war international boundaries with Egypt and Syria in exchange for recognition of the State of Israel, the demilitarization of the Golan Heights, and lasting peace. That understanding was not shared by much of the Arab world. At an Arab League summit, 11 weeks after the formal end of hostilities, the heads of state declared that they would “ensure the withdrawal of the aggressive Israeli forces from the Arab lands … within the framework of the main principles by which the Arab States abide – namely, no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiations.” The Middle East seemed to be swiftly headed toward another war.

Diplomatic efforts at the United Nations attempted to bring both sides together, but the Arabs – backed by the Soviet Union – demanded full Israeli withdrawal before making any commitment to peace, while Israel, backed by the United States, demanded that peace negotiations be concluded with individual states before any military climb-down. Resolution 242 became the U.N.’s compromise solution.

Eventually passed on Nov. 22, 1967 after weeks of difficult and protracted negotiations, the resolution began with a preamble that emphasized “the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war.” It then stated the aim of establishing a just and lasting peace by applying two principles: first, the “withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict” and second, the “termination of all claims or states of belligerency and respect for and acknowledgement of the sovereignty … of every state in the area.” Finally, it affirmed freedom of navigation in international waterways – the Egyptian Navy’s closing of the Strait of Tiran was one of Israel’s casus belli – and made a commitment to resolving the “refugee problem.”

The two central principles of the resolution became its most contentious aspects – above all, the demand for Israeli withdrawal. Arab states and Palestinian leaders have consistently asserted that the resolution requires Israel to give up the “occupied territories” in their entirety and return to pre-1967 borders. But that was never the intention of the drafters of the resolution. An early version called for Israel to “withdraw all its forces from all the territories occupied by it as a result of the recent conflict,” but Israeli Foreign Minster Abba Eban persuaded the U.S. to adjust that clause and remove both uses of the word “all.” Then-U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Arthur Goldberg has said that “the notable omissions – which were not accidental in regard to withdrawal – are the words ‘in’ or ‘all.’” In short, Resolution 242 was never intended to require Israel to withdraw from all of the areas taken in the Six-Day War, precisely because the current American administration made certain that it did not.

But the resolution did envisage territorial renegotiation. In an interview shortly after the document’s passage, the official U.N. sponsor of Resolution 242 – Britain’s ambassador to the U.N. – described the pre-1967 border as “rotten,” adding, “In some cases, the [pre-1967] line cut right through the lands of a village, putting some lands into Israel and the rest of the lands, as it was then, under Jordanian control. We thought that should be rectified.” The suggestion was that if Israel gave up land by withdrawing its forces, the Arab states would, in exchange, agree to peace.

The central purpose of Resolution 242 was to bring about a just and lasting peace, but it manifestly failed in that regard. Within six years, Israel was attacked by a coalition of Arab states, a conflict that came to be known as the Yom Kippur War. But the template for negotiation proposed by the resolution – that of “land for peace” – has become the basis for all subsequent efforts in the peace process.

In 1978, after secret negotiations at Camp David, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin agreed that Israel would withdraw from the Sinai Peninsula. In exchange, Egypt would normalize diplomatic relations with Israel and guarantee freedom of passage in the crucial waterways of the Suez Canal and the Strait of Tiran. To this day, an uneasy peace has been maintained between Egypt and Israel, although Sadat’s willingness to negotiate cost him his life; he was assassinated three years after the Camp David Accords.

In 1993, Israel agreed to military withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank, and to Palestinian self-governance, in exchange for the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s recognizing a Jewish State and renouncing violence. The following year, Jordan also recognized the State of Israel, and the two nations signed a peace treaty.

Since the day that Israel and the PLO agreed the Oslo Accords, the peace process has stalled. Sporadic periods of violence, the rise of Hamas to power in Gaza, and intransigence over the restarting of negotiations have thwarted attempts to agree further compromises. However, the guiding principle of Resolution 242 has brought about a measure of peace. Where Israel has ceded territory taken in the Six-Day War, it has, on the country’s external borders with Egypt and Jordan, led to a cessation of hostilities. Syria has never formally acknowledged the existence of the State of Israel and Israel has retained the Golan Heights; in that regard, Resolution 242 is still unfulfilled.

There remains today a continued controversy over the central clause of the resolution regarding Israeli withdrawal. The insistence on the part of the Palestinians that the resolution requires withdrawal to pre-1967 borders is now impracticable as a result of extensive Israeli settlement expansion, regardless of the fact that the diplomats who drafted it did not intend that interpretation of the resolution. But the theoretical possibility of a lasting peace, secured in exchange for land, still exists.

Although Resolution 242 remains deeply controversial, the failures to find peace in the Middle East have been the fault of the parties themselves, not the resolution that was designed to create the framework for it.

This article originally appeared on Philos Project, November 29, 2016, and reposted with permission.

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David Charlwood obtained a First Class Honours Degree in history from Royal Holloway, University of London, and has worked as a writer and international journalist since 2012. His research into British relations with the Arabs during the First World War has been published in the British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies.