UN Security Council Resolutions 242, 338 and “Land for Peace”

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Key Facts

  • UN Security Council Resolution 242 (1967) is the sole internationally agreed-upon foundation for negotiations leading to a resolution of the Arab-Israeli dispute.
  • The Resolution is often misinterpreted to say Israel must return to borders existing before the 1967 Six-Day War.
  • The intent of Resolution 242 was two-fold: to call upon Israel for territorial withdrawal and to call upon the Arab states to recognize Israel and its right to live in peace and security.
  • Negotiations to create the Resolution were an effort to arrive at a document that met both the Arabs’ desire for the return of land, and Israel’s requirement that the Arabs finally call an end to their state of war and recognize Israel’s legitimacy.
  • Resolution 242 was not implemented immediately. It was only in the context of the Yom Kippur War of 1973 that the Security Council passed Resolution 338 (October 21- 22, 1973) under Chapter 7 of the Charter, which legally bound the parties to the conflict to implement Resolution 242 in all its parts.
  • Resolution 242 has been the sole, indispensable cornerstone of all Arab-Israeli peacemaking since the Egypt-Israel accords at Camp David (1978).
  • Palestinian insistence on a complete Israeli withdrawal from the territories is not only a deliberate perversion of the language and intent of UNSC Resolutions 242 and 338 but also a recipe for diplomatic stalemate and continuing violence.
  • So too, are periodic attempts on the part of the PA to reintroduce into the diplomatic discussion UN General Assembly Resolution 181 (November 1947, which called for a partition of Mandatory Palestine into separate Jewish and Palestinian states) as the term of reference for the resolution of Israeli-Palestinian land disputes.
  • The Palestinian reference to Resolution 181 is seen largely as a political stratagem designed to put international pressure on Israel to make maximum territorial concessions.
  • Canada accepts resolutions 242 and 338 alone as the reference points for peace negotiations.
More information

UN Security Council Resolution 242 (1967) is the sole internationally agreed-upon foundation for negotiations leading to a resolution of the Arab-Israeli dispute. However, Resolution 242 is frequently misunderstood as favouring an Arab interpretation in which Israel would be required to return to the June 4, 1967 boundaries thereby relinquishing all territories captured in the June 1967 war. In reality, Resolution 242 makes no such demand but rather conditions the return of territories (the extent of which is to be determined by direct negotiations) in exchange for permanent peace and security arrangements on all fronts.

On November 22, 1967, following the June 1967 Six-Day War, in an attempt to stimulate negotiations with the objective of promoting peace and recognition of Israel, the United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 242. Recognizing that Israel had captured territory – the Sinai Peninsula and Gaza Strip, the West Bank and the Golan Heights – in an act of self-defence and not as a matter of aggression, the Security Council passed 242 under Chapter 6 of the UN Charter (“the pacific settlement of disputes” clause). The fact that 242 was passed under Chapter 6 rather than Chapter 7, which gives the Security Council the capacity to label states as aggressors and threats to international peace and security, is an important – and often overlooked – distinction.

While the preamble of 242 refers to the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war (a passage frequently cited out of context by Israel’s critics) it immediately adds: and the need to work for a just and lasting peace in which every state in the area can live in security.

The intent of Resolution 242 was two-fold: to call upon Israel for territorial withdrawal and to call upon the Arab states to recognize Israel and its right to live in peace and security. Hence the term “land for peace.” But, under no circumstances was Israel required, in the absence of peace and security guarantees from the Arab states, either to return to the precise June 4, 1967 borders or to make territorial concessions unilaterally. As Israeli statesman Abba Eban noted: “In November 1967 the [Security] Council adopted Resolution 242 legitimizing Israel’s presence in the territories pending a peace agreement.” Pending a negotiated resolution of the conflict, therefore, Israel’s presence in the territories is perfectly legal.

Implicitly acknowledging the need of the Arab states to recognize Israel, to desist from belligerency and respect Israel’s right to live in security, Resolution 242 specifically calls for the

termination of all claims or states of belligerency and respect for and acknowledgment of sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence of every state in the area and their right to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries free from threats and acts of force.

Resolution 242 was the result of five-and-a-half months of intense negotiations in which the United States and the Soviet Union played key roles. Canada, then a non-permanent member of the Security Council, played an important consensus-building role in the formation of this resolution. These negotiations were an effort to arrive at a document that met both the Arabs’ desire for the return of land, and Israel’s requirement that the Arabs finally call an end to their state of war and recognize Israel’s legitimacy.

In calling for “Withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict,” Resolution 242 explicitly omitted the terms “the territories” or “all territories”. Arthur J. Goldberg, US representative to the UN in 1967, later noted that the omission of these words was not accidental:

The resolution speaks of withdrawal from occupied territories without defining the extent of withdrawals.

Eugene Rostow who, as US Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs in 1967, helped draft the language of 242, insists that the omission of the term “the territories” or “all territories” leaves no room for those who advocate that Resolution 242 is “deliberately ambiguous” and can therefore be freely interpreted in its key provisions by different parties. “Nothing could be further from the truth,” he says. Rostow continues:

[It is] perfectly clear about what the missing definite article in Resolution 242 means. Ingeniously drafted resolutions calling for withdrawal from ‘all’ the territories were defeated in the Security Council and the General Assembly. Speaker after speaker made it explicit that Israel was not to be forced back to the ‘fragile’ and ‘vulnerable’ Armistice Demarcation Lines [1949] but should retire once peace was made to what Resolution 242 called ‘secure and recognized’ boundaries, agreed to by the parties.

Lord Caradon, the UK ambassador to the UN at the time and one of the authors of the Resolution, underscored this point when he reflected on 242 several years later:

We didn’t say there should be withdrawal to the ’67 line; we did not put ‘the’ in, we did not say ‘all the territories’ deliberately. We knew that the boundaries of ’67 were not drawn as permanent frontiers; they were a cease-fire line of a couple of decades earlier. We did not say that the ’67 boundaries must be forever.

The Soviet Union, which had armed and helped provoke the Arabs into a confrontation with Israel in the spring of 1967 and which then broke relations with Israel following the Six-Day War, tried to include the phrase “withdrawal from all the territories” in the final draft. This attempt was defeated; even the more watered-down phrase “withdrawal from the territories” was also defeated in favour of the term “territories” alone.

Arab states and the Palestinian leadership have traditionally adhered to the French version of 242, which includes the word ‘the’, as proof that Israel is obliged to withdraw from all territories captured in 1967, including eastern Jerusalem. However, this argument is invalid in that it ignores the fact that under international law, it is the English-language version that is the accepted reference point.

Resolution 242 recommended a framework for Arab-Israeli peacemaking. But its recommendations were not implemented as a result of lingering mistrust and hostility following the Six-Day War. It was only in the context of the Yom Kippur War of 1973 that the Security Council passed Resolution 338 (October 21- 22, 1973) under Chapter 7 of the Charter, which legally bound the parties to the conflict to implement Resolution 242 in all its parts. It obligated the parties to sit at the negotiating table with the aim of “establishing a just and durable peace in the Middle East.”

Resolution 242 has been the sole, indispensable cornerstone of all Arab-Israeli peacemaking since the Egypt-Israel accords at Camp David (1978). Its centrality was reaffirmed at the Madrid Peace Conference (1991), in the Oslo Accords (1993) and in all subsequent Israeli-Palestinian negotiations to date. In the context of the Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty, Israel returned the Sinai Peninsula, thereby demonstrating its determination, when provided formal assurances of peace and security in return, to abide by the terms of 242. Israeli withdrawal from some areas of the West Bank and Gaza since 1993 – especially since Oslo II of 1995 – is a further step in the fulfillment of 242.

In private discussions on final status issues with Yossi Beilin in the fall of 1995, Mahmoud Abbas reportedly accepted the concept of a “territorial adjustment” in which approximately ten percent of the western part of the West Bank would be annexed by Israel, in exchange for territorial concessions elsewhere – a compromise formula that was seemingly incorporated in Israeli-PA negotiations at Camp David and Taba.

Despite such evidence of some flexibility on the part of certain Palestinian officials and intellectuals, the Palestinian Authority officially insists that UNSC Resolution 242 demands Israeli withdrawal from all territories taken in 1967. This maximalist position is consistently reflected in official PA declarations and in violent attacks against Jewish West Bank inhabitants and the Israeli soldiers deployed to protect them.
The Palestinian insistence on a complete Israeli withdrawal from the territories is not only a deliberate perversion of the language and intent of UNSC Resolutions 242 and 338 but also a recipe for diplomatic stalemate and continuing violence. So, too, are periodic attempts on the part of the PA to reintroduce into the diplomatic discussion UN General Assembly Resolution 181 (November 1947, which called for a partition of Mandatory Palestine into separate Jewish and Palestinian states) as the term of reference for the resolution of Israeli-Palestinian land disputes.

From the Israeli perspective, Resolution 181 ceased to have relevance the moment it was violently repudiated by the Arab side in 1947-48. Moreover, were Resolution 181 to be implemented in full today, it would compel Israel to return even further than the militarily indefensible armistice lines established at the end of the 1948-49 to the separation boundaries prescribed in the partition resolution (including internationalization of Jerusalem).

Very few countries take the Palestinian reference to Resolution 181 seriously. It is seen largely as a political stratagem designed to put international pressure on Israel to make maximum territorial concessions. Israel and the United States have formally rejected this call to revive 181 and insist, along with most others, that all negotiations be premised solely on Security Council Resolution 242, as has been the case in all Arab-Israeli peacemaking since the first Camp David talks of 1978.

Canada accepts resolutions 242 and 338 alone as the reference points for peace negotiations.

Claims by Palestinians, Arab states and their supporters in the West that Palestinian rejectionism and violence are “justified resistance” to “illegal Israeli occupation” must be – despite constant repetition in some media reports – repudiated as utter falsehoods.

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