It’s still the best basis for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflictby Toby Greene / April 21, 2017 / Leave a comment
As Israel’s presence in the occupied territories reaches its fiftieth year, now is the time to recall that the internationally agreed framework for ending the occupation has been around almost as long.
On a bracing Wednesday in New York, 22nd November 1967, the UN Security Council approved the 291 words of Resolution 242. It presented two principles in parallel: Israeli territorial withdrawal on the one hand, and recognition of Israel’s right to “live in peace within secure and recognised boundaries” on the other. This “land for peace” trade-off has come to define Arab-Israeli peacemaking.
That the Cold War titans could agree on it showed that the 1967 war, born of crisis, had created an opportunity. June 1967 saw the end of the Arab states’ hope of destroying Israel. Arab goals moderated to regaining the territory lost in the war. Resolution 242 reflected the international realisation that this could be compatible with Israel’s goals of legitimacy and security.
Several drafts lay before the Council that day. But it was a British ambassador, Hugh Foot, better known as Lord Caradon, (a former president of the Cambridge Union whose younger brother was Michael Foot) whose deft diplomatic and textual manoeuvres finally won approval.
Foot’s draft had enough substance to be meaningful, but sufficient ambiguity for each side to frame its interests in the context of the resolution. Israel interpreted the resolution as requiring full Arab recognition, though this was not explicit. The Arabs interpreted the resolution as requiring full Israeli withdrawal, though the wording artfully avoided doing so—referring to “withdrawal … from territories,” while omitting “the” or “all.”
Resolution 242 was rejected by the nascent PLO in 1967 since it reinforced Israel’s legitimacy and referred to Palestinians only indirectly, calling vaguely for “a just settlement of the refugee problem.” Only in 1988 did Arafat accept 242, implicitly indicating that the PLO sought a state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and not in place of Israel itself. In the 1993 Oslo accords, 242 is the only substantive international reference point for a permanent agreement.
Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking was anchored therefore, not on unconditional Israeli withdrawal to the insecure 1949 armistice lines, but withdrawal inherently linked to secure and recognised boundaries, and through an addition clause in 242: “territorial inviolability … through measures including the establishment of demilitarised zones.”
Today Israel is not threatened by Soviet-backed Arab armies, but non-state actors operating in weakly governed spaces on its borders. This reinforces Israeli insistence that its withdrawal be linked to long-term security arrangements—a necessity vividly illustrated by Hamas’s takeover of the Gaza Strip after Israel’s 2005 unilateral withdrawal. Yet Israel’s demand for a military presence in the Jordan Valley remained a major sticking point in the 2013-4 talks.
Of course, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is about more than territories captured in 1967. The events of 1948—Israel’s establishment and the Palestinian refugee problem—are equally defining.
For Israel, a core trade-off for recognizing a Palestinian state in territory it captured in 1967, is Palestinian renunciation of the claimed “right of return” for refugees from 1948 and their descendants to the state of Israel. This drives Israel’s demand not only for secure and recognised boundaries, but also, in the context of a two-state agreement, Palestinian recognition of Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people.
Also, just as 242 did not address Palestinian national claims, and their legitimate right to national self-determination, nor does it deal with Jewish attachment to the West Bank (Judea and Samaria) and Jerusalem, an issue augmented by the settlement of Israelis there since 1967.
Yet 242 nonetheless provides the basis for addressing these issues: Israeli withdrawal enabling Palestinian sovereignty; the possibility of territorial adjustments or swaps, which can incorporate settlements; and above all the need for both peoples to enjoy “territorial inviolability and political independence.”
Since 242, UN resolutions have frequently been used as weapons in the conflict, rather than tools to resolve it. Resolution 2334, passed in December 2016 in condemnation of Israeli settlements, promoted a Palestinian agenda, with only minimal reference to issues of concern to Israel.
Support for the resolution reflected understandable frustration over settlements, but also sent the Palestinians the message that it can achieve outcomes without trade-offs. Resolution 242 did the opposite, providing guideline both parties could adopt as the basis to negotiate a mutually desirable outcome.
Naturally, having a framework for resolving the conflict is not enough. The belief that change is possible is necessary, but it is badly lacking due to the regional situation and the experiences of both societies, which has heightened mutual distrust and anxiety.
In that context, the 50-year anniversary can fuel international concerns that the conflict is unending, and lead some to seek alternative solutions. But though the bilateral track has run aground, there are ways (as a recent BICOM paperoutlines) to reverse the trends: constructive unilateralism; creating a regional diplomatic umbrella; rebooting civil society initiatives; and rebuilding a bilateral backchannel.
The logic of 242—of balancing rights and responsibilities, withdrawal and security—remains sound, and can only be expressed in a two-state framework. The problem is not with the principles but the commitment to apply them. International actors should use this moment to reaffirm those principles. Approaches that avoid that logic pull us away from a resolution to the conflict.
Toby Greene is senior research associate for the Israel and Middle East think tank BICOM and a post-doctoral fellow in the Leonard Davis Institute for International Relations at Hebrew University. Read his full piece in the current issue of Fathom. @toby_greene_