The Story of Resolution 242 or How the US Sold Out the Palestinians

Henry Kissinger writes in his memoirs that when, upon entering the Nixon administration as national security adviser in 1969, he first heard the phrase “a just and lasting peace within secure and recognized borders”, he thought the incantation so platitudinous that he accused the speaker of pulling his leg. But Kissinger quickly learned that this central tenet of UN Security Council Resolution 242, which calls for the withdrawal of Israeli forces from territories occupied during the 1967 war in return for an Arab pledge of full peace and recognition, was deadly serious. The resolution had been adopted more than a year before Kissinger arrived on the scene, but he played a key role in setting it, and the land-for-peace doctrine that is its centerpiece, into concrete as the basis for U.S. policy on the Arab-Israeli conflict. For 25 years, the resolution remained the bedrock of all efforts to forge a peace agreement through every subsequent U.S. administration–until President Bill Clinton arrived on the scene and until, ironically, the peace process revved up in earnest.

Although Clinton and his team of negotiators paid lip service to Resolution 242, in fact they consistently, throughout seven years of peacemaking, undermined it by abandoning the land-for-peace concept that was fundamental to it. President George W. Bush and his policymakers also occasionally mention the resolution, but the Bush administration is demonstrably ignorant of the history and background of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and it can fairly be said that, by now, Resolution 242 and the approach to peace that it outlined have basically been forgotten, consigned to the filing cabinets of history and remembered only by Palestinians for whom the U.S. memory loss constitutes a grave breach of contract.

This is a story of remarkable foreign policy duplicity. When Resolution 242 was negotiated and finally adopted in November 1967, a few months after Israel captured territory from Egypt, Syria, and Jordan in the 1967 war, President Lyndon Johnson and his policymakers were anxious primarily to ensure that Israel not be required to withdraw from captured territory, as had happened in 1956 following the Sinai campaign, without an explicit, guaranteed promise from the Arabs of peace and an end of belligerency. The resolution stipulated this exchange, calling unequivocally for “termination of all claims or states of belligerency” and explicit acknowledgement of all states’ (meaning in particular Israel’s) territorial integrity and “right to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries free from threats or acts of force”–all in return for Israel’s withdrawal “from territories occupied in the recent conflict”.

The extent of Israel’s required withdrawal was deliberately not specified in the resolution–an example of “creative ambiguity” made possible by omitting the definite article in front of the phrase “territories occupied in the recent conflict”. Internal documents and the rare public pronouncement, however, make it clear that, although U.S. policymakers never definitively spelled out the exact boundary envisioned between Israel and any Arab entity, the basic assumption of successive administrations was that Israel would not keep the occupied territories. Johnson said publicly in 1968 that whatever borders were finally agreed to “should not reflect the weight of conquest”. The U.S. envisioned a virtually full withdrawal on all fronts, excepting only some possible “minor border adjustments” in the 1967 lines to straighten and rationalize boundaries. In fact, on the Egyptian front, under the 1979 peace treaty, Israel withdrew totally from the occupied Sinai Peninsula–a point not lost on other Arabs still negotiating their own agreements.

With respect specifically to the occupied West Bank, U.S. policymakers gained Jordan’s acceptance of Resolution 242 on the promise that the U.S. would seek an Israeli withdrawal from the entire territory except for minor border changes. When in 1988 Jordan formally relinquished its claim to the West Bank in favor of the Palestinians (Egypt had previously relinquished any claim to Gaza), Palestinians assumed that the promise reverted to them and that the U.S. remained pledged to work for a virtually total Israeli withdrawal. This is in fact the basis on which the U.S. proceeded.

For years, a succession of U.S. administrations demanded, as a precondition for Palestinian entry into the peace process, that the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) formally accept the UN resolution and recognize not only Israel’s existence but its “right to exist”. In negotiating the 1975 Sinai II accord, the agreement for a second partial Israeli withdrawal in the Sinai Peninsula, Henry Kissinger, responding to Israel’s fear that it would be forced to deal with the PLO as the next step in the negotiating process, added a codicil promising that the United States would not negotiate with the PLO unless it met these conditions. Two years later, President Jimmy Carter and Secretary of State Cyrus Vance made a serious attempt to gain PLO acquiescence to the conditions in order be able to bring the Palestinians into negotiations, but the effort ultimately failed, largely because the PLO felt unable at the time to make these major concessions without any expectation of concessions from Israel. Palestinians specifically objected to 242 because it did not address them in national terms, referring to them only as “the refugee problem”.

It would be another decade before the PLO, buoyed by the political successes of the first intifada, made what it considered to be a major compromise and finally accepted Resolution 242. In November 1988, the PLO formally relinquished all Palestinian claim to territory inside Israel’s 1967 borders and, in the belief that the resolution required Israel’s withdrawal from the occupied territories and that the United States supported such a withdrawal, declared its goal to be the establishment of an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, existing alongside Israel, with a shared capital in Jerusalem. In a formal public statement, PLO leader Yasir Arafat recognized Israel’s “right to exist” at the same time. The Palestinians thus relinquished claim to 78 percent of Palestine, demanding independent statehood only in the remaining 22 percent. Three years after this, and only because of their acceptance of 242, Palestinians were included for the first time in peace negotiations, participating as part of the Jordanian delegation to the Madrid peace conference in October 1991.

The principal point that should be emphasized throughout these two decades of fitful negotiations is that the United States, through six administrations from Johnson to George H. W. Bush, consistently adhered to Resolution 242, explicitly endorsed its central land-for-peace thesis, and therefore explicitly led the PLO to believe that Palestinian adherence to the resolution and an expressed willingness to live in peace with Israel would bring U.S. support for the other half of the deal–land for the Palestinians, in the form of an independent state in the West Bank and Gaza, with a capital in Jerusalem, following a virtually complete Israeli withdrawal.

This is not to say that all U.S. administrations supported the idea of trading land for peace to the same degree. The Reagan administration, for instance, was notably unenthusiastic about working for an end to the Israeli occupation and missed several opportunities to move forward on the basis of Resolution 242. Most notably, the Reagan team rejected as a non-starter the Fez Plan of September 1982, an initiative originated by Saudi Arabia and based on land for peace that was adopted at an Arab summit by all heads of state except one, as well as the PLO. Nonetheless, even the Reagan administration insisted on PLO adherence to Resolution 242 and agreed to open a formal U.S. dialogue with the PLO when the organization accepted the resolution in 1988.

As late as the first Bush administration, policymakers regularly reaffirmed Resolution 242 as the basis for a peace settlement and specified U.S. support for an end to Israel’s occupation. In an official letter of assurance given to the Palestinians in advance of the 1991 Madrid peace conference, Secretary of State James Baker asserted the U.S. belief that “a comprehensive peace must be grounded in” Resolution 242 and “the principle of territory for peace”. Baker further pledged that “the United States believes that there should be an end to the Israeli occupation”. Bush senior himself, in a rare instance of a president venturing publicly into the political minefield of the occupied territories, affirmed in 1990 that the U.S. did not support the establishment of Israeli settlements in either the West Bank or East Jerusalem.

The long and the short of this extended chapter in U.S. diplomacy is that, after being beaten about the head and shoulders for years about the need to accept the UN resolution and recognize Israel’s right to exist, Palestinians had every reason to expect that the U.S. would follow through with its part of the bargain when they did finally accede to these demands–first in 1988, then again in 1991 when they accepted the terms for entering peace talks at Madrid, and yet again in 1993 when they negotiated and signed on to the Oslo accords. In fact, the terms of the Oslo agreement, signed on the White House lawn with much pomp and ceremony under the complacent eye of President Bill Clinton (who in reality had had nothing to do with negotiating the agreement), specified that negotiations would “lead to the implementation of” Resolution 242.

It soon became clear, however, that Clinton and his team of negotiators–led by Special Middle East Coordinator Dennis Ross and Martin Indyk, who served at different times during Clinton’s terms on the National Security Council staff, as ambassador to Israel, and as deputy assistant secretary of state–had dramatically altered the game plan. Having obtained a Palestinian commitment to full peace, including not simply recognition of Israel’s existence inside its 1967 borders, but recognition of its “right” to exist, the U.S. dropped any requirement for full or nearly full Israeli withdrawal. The decades-long U.S. commitment to the concept of land for peace changed from a promise made to both sides to work for what each most wanted–for the Palestinians, the return of all occupied territory with the exception of minor border adjustments; for Israel, full peace and the right to live within secure borders–to a promise instead to Israel that, now that the Palestinians had already committed to full peace, Israel’s virtually full withdrawal would no longer be necessary.

The backgrounds of Ross and Indyk are relevant to the policy they developed during the Clinton years. Before entering government, both had been connected with the pro-Israeli think tank, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a spin-off from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the principal pro-Israel lobby organization. Ross was a senior fellow at the institute in the mid-1980s, was an adviser to the Bush presidential campaign in 1988, and served as James Baker’s senior State Department adviser on both Soviet and Middle East affairs. He stayed on as principal Middle East negotiator throughout Clinton’s years in office and since then has returned to the Washington Institute as a senior counselor. Indyk, an Australian citizen who came to the U.S. in the 1970s and had worked for AIPAC, was the Washington Institute’s director from its creation in 1984 until he moved into the Clinton administration in 1993, an appointment that necessitated his rapid acquisition of U.S. citizenship.

Both men had lived in Israel in the 1970s, and Indyk has told interviewers that he moved to the United States after the 1973 war because he came to believe during that war that the U.S. was the key to Israel’s defense, an objective clearly of surpassing importance to him personally. Although both men prided themselves on being able as Jews to understand Palestinians better than most, it was clear that they approached Middle East policymaking from an Israel-centered focus that did not in fact permit as clear an understanding of Palestinian concerns as of Israeli interests. One can get an idea of the perhaps unconsciously skewed perspective from which they operated by imagining the policy approach of a chief mediator who was of Palestinian descent, had lived in the West Bank, and unabashedly proclaimed that his primary aim in life was to ensure the defense of Palestine.

The Clinton policy approach, formulated largely by Ross, quickly became clear when the United States drafted a proposed Israeli-Palestinian declaration of principles in mid-1993, before the Oslo agreement was adopted. The draft U.S. declaration essentially abandoned the principles behind Resolution 242. It stated as one of its fundamental points that “the two sides concur that the agreement reached between them on permanent status will constitute the implementation” of Resolution 242 in all its aspects.

Although written in the legalistic language of a diplomatic brief, the meaning of the Ross draft was clear: whatever Israel as the overwhelmingly stronger power could force the Palestinians to accept would constitute the “implementation of Resolution 242” as far as the United States was concerned. In other words, the Clinton administration now intended to treat the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem not as occupied territories but only as territories under dispute. The United States no longer regarded these areas as occupied territories from which Israel was required to withdraw, but now regarded the territories as disputed lands whose almost full retention Israel had the right to negotiate if it could get away with it. The United States, for its part, would leave the two sides–one overwhelmingly stronger militarily and in total possession of the land in question–to negotiate a disposition of the land without any intervention by an honest broker or mediator.

The quarter-century-old bedrock U.S. policy of supporting the exchange of full peace for full withdrawal had thus been reshaped by Clinton administration policymakers to supporting the exchange of full peace for a mere partial withdrawal. The promise to the Palestinians that had always been part of the demands on them to accept Resolution 242 was abandoned without a by-your-leave by a team of U.S. negotiators whose main interest lay in guaranteeing Israel’s security and seeing to the furtherance of Israel’s interests, and by a president who may not have understood and apparently did not care about the nuances of decades of U.S. policymaking.

This failure of understanding is the primary reason the peace process collapsed at the Camp David summit in July 2000. The myth of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s “generous offer” has created the widespread misapprehension that Yasir Arafat rejected out of hand, without even offering a counterproposal, an extremely good deal that he should clearly have accepted. Arafat’s rejection supposedly proved, according to the prevailing wisdom, that the Palestinians were unwilling to conclude any deal that would allow Israel to live in peace and that they were still irreconcilably opposed to Israel existence.

According to the myth, Barak’s proposal would have given the Palestinians, as New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman is fond of repeating, “95 percent of the West Bank and half of Jerusalem, with all the settlements gone”. In fact, what Barak actually offered at Camp David was to withdraw from 89-90 percent of the West Bank, not 95 percent; to give the Palestinians sovereignty in a few non-contiguous neighborhoods of East Jerusalem, not half of Jerusalem; and, far from assuring that all the settlements would be gone, to annex to Israel settlements housing fully 80 percent of the 200,000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank and 100 percent of the 170,000 settlers in East Jerusalem.

The resulting Palestinian “state” would have been broken up in the West Bank into three almost completely non-contiguous sections, each connected only by a narrow thread of land and each surrounded by Israeli territory, plus Gaza. This so-called state would have been a colony, not a state–with no real independence, no ability to defend itself, no control over its borders, no control over its water resources, no easy way even for its citizens to reach one section from another, and a capital made up of separate neighborhoods not contiguous to each other or to the rest of the state. Israel would never have agreed to live in a disjointed, indefensible state like this, but Israel and the United States thought it fine to offer this to the Palestinians. This Israeli offer, made with U.S. support and participation, turned the promise of Resolution 242 on its head.

The myth of Camp David has been almost impossible to overturn, largely because Clinton spawned it himself, blaming Arafat, and Arafat alone, for the summit’s breakdown. The U.S. media and particularly leading media commentators quickly took a cue from Clinton, stridently piling on Arafat, and it has now become an automatic, almost casual part of the media’s mantra to observe that Arafat rejected a remarkably forthcoming Israeli offer at Camp David. Clinton and his negotiators, no doubt unwilling to assume any of the responsibility themselves for years of misguided policymaking, have continued to put out the line that everything was Arafat’s fault.

Should Arafat and Palestinian negotiators have seen this betrayal coming and better prepared themselves to counter it? Should Arafat have made it clear at Camp David that Resolution 242, along with a quarter century of U.S. policy supporting land for peace, constituted his counterproposal and that, although Palestinians were prepared to negotiate minor border adjustments in the 1967 lines, they were not prepared to concede Israel’s right to trisect the West Bank and render it indefensible? When U.S. officials began to say, in the run-up to Camp David, that neither side could expect to get 100 percent of its demands, should Arafat have reminded those officials, and Israel, that the Palestinians had already formally compromised 78 percent of their demands by repeatedly recognizing Israel’s right to exist and that compromise on the remaining 22 percent would necessarily be minimal? Should Arafat have been a better negotiator?

The answer is yes to all of these questions. But the fact that Arafat is not a skilled negotiator, or an adequate communicator, or even a decent leader cannot negate the right of a Palestinian nation, as laid out in Resolution 242, to “live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries free from threats or acts of force”.

The word “occupation”–and the concept that lay behind it, that Israel is a foreign military conqueror in temporary possession of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem–disappeared entirely from the diplomatic lexicon of the Clinton administration. President Bush has reintroduced the word and made occasional references to Resolution 242–most notably in his June 24 speech calling for a truncated, ill-defined, “provisional” Palestinian state–but neither in this speech nor in previous iterations of his so-called vision of a Palestinian state has Bush given an indication that he has any appreciation of the reality of occupation or what to do about it, or any depth of understanding of what occupation means to Palestinians. He never mentions the notion of trading land for peace.

As has so often been the case with U.S. policymakers, Bush appears to be taking his cue from Israel on this issue. Just before his arrival in Washington for a meeting with Bush in early June, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon authored an op-ed article in the New York Times praising the wisdom of Resolution 242, hailing its call for “secure and recognized boundaries” and claiming that the resolution “established that these were disputed territories where Israel had legitimate rights to defensible borders.” Implying that Israelis had already carried out all of their obligations under the resolution, he observed that Israel “withdrew its military government over the Palestinian population” under the Oslo agreement in accordance with 242. In view of the disdain in which Sharon and his Likud party have always held Resolution 242, this praise for the resolution is an audacious and highly cynical turnaround. But it apparently worked on Bush, for although his new “peace plan” mentions the long-term goal of a peace settlement based on Resolution 242 and calls for Israeli withdrawal to positions held before the start of the intifada in September 2000, it does not deviate from Sharon’s revisionist interpretation of the resolution. Neither man bothered to mention that the resolution is premised on the “inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war”, which removes any justification for Israel’s retention of the captured territories. Bush echoed Sharon in explicitly mentioning only one of the resolution’s several provisions–that endorsing the idea of secure and recognized borders for Israel. Furthermore, Bush’s only mention of the need for Israeli withdrawal was to pre-intifada positions–a territorial configuration that saw Israeli in full control of 60% of the West Bank and Palestinian autonomous areas covering the remaining 40% broken up into more than 200 separate, non-contiguous areas.

Once again, an Israeli prime minister has skewed the original intent of Resolution 242 to suit Israel’s interests, and an uninformed and uninterested American president has willingly followed along. The real import of the resolution has long since been discarded and forgotten. If mentioned at all, the idea of land-for-peace now tends, in political discourse throughout the U.S., to be treated as a quaint anachronism, as when many commentators dismissed the significance of the recent Arab peace proposal based on Resolution 242 and land-for-peace. Only historians and Palestinians truly remember the significance of the 35-year-old resolution.

We hear much these days about how Israelis have lost trust in the Palestinians since the beginning of the intifada in September 2000. This loss of trust is undeniable, but in the usual one-sided, Israel-focused approach of U.S. media commentators and policymakers, the fact that this sense of betrayal goes both ways has been almost totally ignored. Palestinians have also experienced a betrayal–not only a loss of trust in Israel because it has done nothing, despite seven years of a so-called peace process, to end decades of settlement building, land confiscation, checkpoints, and house demolitions, but more significantly a loss of trust in the United States as an honest and reliable mediator prepared to address the concerns of both Israelis and Palestinians equally and prepared to carry through with long-standing diplomatic obligations. The land-for-peace betrayal stands as a shameful example of diplomatic double-dealing and is the primary reason for the perpetuation of the tragic conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

Kathleen Christison worked for 16 years as a political analyst with the CIA, dealing first with Vietnam and then with the Middle East for her last seven years with the Agency before resigning in 1979. Since leaving the CIA, she has been a free-lance writer, dealing primarily with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Her book, “Perceptions of Palestine: Their Influence on U.S. Middle East Policy,” was published by the University of California Press and reissued in paperback with an update in October 2001. A second book, “The Wound of Dispossession: Telling the Palestinian Story,” was published in March 2002. Both Kathy and her husband Bill, also a former CIA analyst, are regular contributors to the CounterPunch website.