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The Issue of Pre-1967 War Borders

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Since the end of the Six-Day War forty years ago, many have asserted that Arab-Israeli peace can only be achieved if israel returns to the borders that defined it prior to the onset of the 1967 war. To make their case, they cite United Nations (UN) Security Council Resolution 242 which calls for the “withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict.” That interpretation is incorrect. The resolution was designed only to put in place conditions that would lead to a negotiated settlement. It was not intended to predetermine the borders that would constitute the outcome from such a settlement.

To understand the resolution’s intent, one must take a closer look at the United Nations’ position on the 1967 borders that preceded the war. Those borders resulted from a series of armistice agreements that were reached between israel and Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. Those agreements demarcated ceasefire lines “beyond which the armed forces of the respective parties shall not move.” They did not establish nor suggest permanent boundaries.

Each of the armistice agreements drew upon UN Security Council Resolutions 61 and 62 and provided language that prohibited the sides from gaining “military or political advantage” from the truce that had been ordered under those Security Council resolutions. Article IV of the Egypt-israel armistice agreement stated:

…the following principles and purposes are affirmed… The principle that no military or political advantage should be gained under the truce ordered by the Security Council is recognized… It is emphasized that it is not the purpose of this Agreement to establish, to recognize, to strengthen, or to weaken or nullify, in any way, any territorial, custodial or other rights, claims or interests which may be asserted by either Party in the area of Palestine or any part or locality thereof covered by this Agreement… The provisions of this Agreement are dictated exclusively by military considerations and are valid only for the period of the Armistice.

Article II of the Jordan-Israel, Lebanon-Israel, and Syria-israel armistice agreements contained similar language. As such, the intent of the United Nations, as well as the understanding of the parties who entered into the armistice agreements, was crystal clear: the demarcation lines were not designed to serve as Israel’s permanent borders.

Later, to further affirm that understanding, with the exception of the Lebanon-Israel armistice agreement that set the ceasefire line at “the international boundary between Lebanon and Palestine,” the armistice agreements contained language specific to the demarcation lines that expressly ruled out their constituting permanent borders. This language is especially important in highlighting the United Nations’ position on what became the pre-1967 war borders.

Article V of the Egypt-Israel armistice agreement stated, “The Armistice Demarcation Line is not to be construed in any sense as a political or territorial boundary, and is delineated without prejudice to rights, claims and positions of either Party to the Armistice as regards ultimate settlement of the Palestine question.” Article VI of the Jordan-Israel armistice agreement provided, “The Armistice Demarcation Lines…are agreed upon by the Parties without prejudice to future territorial settlements or boundary lines or to claims of either Party relating thereto.” Article V of the Syria-Israel armistice agreement declared, “It is emphasized that the following arrangements for the Armistice Demarcation Line between the Israeli and Syrian armed forces and for the Demilitarized Zone are not to be interpreted as having any relation whatsoever to ultimate territorial arrangements affecting the two Parties to this Agreement.”

Precisely, on account of this understanding, United Nations Security Council Resolution 242 proclaimed the “right” of all the affected states “to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries free from threats or acts of force.” Those “secure and recognized boundaries” were to be negotiated and agreed upon by the various parties. As per Security Council Resolutions 61 and 62, negotiations were to be “conducted directly between the parties, or, failing that, through the intermediaries in the service of the United Nations.” Each of those resolutions granted the UN’s acting mediator authority to establish “permanent lines and neutral zones” if the parties could not reach agreement. The acting mediator never established such permanent borders.

During the Security Council’s debate that led to its adoption of Resolution 242, British Ambassador to the UN, Lord Caradon, who drafted the resolution, explained that the resolution was designed to take into consideration both Arab and Israeli needs.

On November 15, 1967, he told the Security Council:

The Arab countries insist that we must direct our special attention to the recovery and restoration of their territories. The issue of withdrawal is to them of top priority… The Israelis tell us that withdrawal must never be to the old precarious truce. It must be to a permanent peace to secure boundaries… Both are right.

On November 16, 1967 he repeated before the Security Council:

In the long discussions with representatives of Arab countries, they have made it clear that they seek no more than justice. The central issue of the recovery and restoration of their territories is naturally uppermost in their minds. The issue of withdrawal to them is all-important… The Israelis, on the other hand, tell us that withdrawal must never be to insecurity and hostility. The action to be taken must be within the framework of a permanent peace and withdrawal must be to secure boundaries… I have said before that these aims do not conflict; they are equal. They are both essential. There must be adequate provision in any resolution to meet them both, since to attempt to pursue one without the other would be foolish and futile.

Arthur Goldberg, the U.S. Ambassador to the UN, made clear that U.S. support for Resolution 242 was based on the UN’s original understanding that the armistice lines were not permanent borders. He explained, “Historically there have never been secure or recognized boundaries in the area. Neither the armistice lines of 1949 nor the ceasefire lines of 1967 have answered that description, although the General Armistice Agreements explicitly recognize the necessity to proceed to permanent peace, which necessarily entails the recognition of boundaries between the parties. Now such boundaries have yet to be agreed upon. An agreement on that point is an absolute essential to a just and lasting peace just as withdrawal is.”

During the debate, some interpreted Resolution 242’s language concerning the “withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict” and the “inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war” as indicating that Israel was required to accept its pre-1967 War borders. Instead, those were principles that the UN was reaffirming. Those principles were not intended to trump the UN’s original understanding that the 1949 armistice lines were not permanent frontiers. In response to some of the efforts to interpret the Resolution 242 to the advantage of particular parties, Lord Caradon declared that he was not “prepared to alter the wording of the remainder of the resolution, including that concerning the necessity of securing a lasting peace…” That portion of the resolution concerned the establishment of “secure and recognized boundaries.” Lord Caradon continued, “I understand the intense feelings which are aroused not only by issues but also by words. Yet again I say that I am convinced that it would be wrong, under pressure from either side, to detract from or add to the balanced formulation which we have endeavored to make both fair and clear. If we start trying to pull out a brick here and a brick there, the whole carefully constructed edifice will come tumbling down.”

Forty years later, Israel is at peace with Egypt and Jordan. Its borders have been fixed with respect to those states. Recently, the Arab League reaffirmed its offer to grant peace in exchange for Israel’s returning to its pre-1967 War borders. However, at this stage, that offer is a “take it or leave it” proposition. It would offer “recognized” borders. Hence, it can properly be seen as an opening negotiating position. However, the final borders will need to be agreed upon through direct negotiations and those borders will need to be both “recognized and secure.” Hence, compromises that modify the pre-1967 War boundaries will almost certainly be required. Resolution 242 does not, in any way, preclude such compromises. Only when there is mutual recognition among the parties of the UN’s intent on this issue, will there be a stronger foundation on which negotiations toward a final settlement can proceed.

Don Sutherland has researched and written on a wide range of geopolitical issues.

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