The Meaning of Resolution 242


On November 22, 1967, the UN Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 242, establishing the principles that were to guide the negotiations for an Arab-Israeli peace settlement. This resolution was a tortuously negotiated compromise between competing proposals. By examining what was discarded as well as the language that appears, it is possible to discern the Security Council's intent.

The first point addressed by the resolution is the "inadmissability of the acquisition of territory by war." Some people read 242 as though it ends here and the case for requiring a total Israeli withdrawal from the territories is proven. On the contrary, this clause does no such thing, because the reference clearly applies only to an offensive war. If not, the resolution would provide an incentive for aggression. If one country attacks another, and the defender repels the attack and acquires territory in the process, the former interpretation would require the defender to return the land it took. Thus, aggressors would have little to lose because they would be insured against the main consequence of defeat.

The ultimate goal of 242, as expressed in paragraph 3, is the achievement of a "peaceful and accepted settlement." This means a negotiated agreement based on the resolution's principles rather than one imposed upon the parties. This is also the implication of Resolution 338, according to Arthur Goldberg, the American ambassador who led the delegation to the UN in 1967. That resolution, adopted after the 1973 war, called for negotiations between the parties to start immediately and concurrently with the cease­fire.

Withdrawal from Territories

The most controversial clause in Resolution 242 is the call for the "Withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict." This is linked to the second unambiguous clause calling for "termination of all claims or states of belligerency" and the recognition that "every State in the area" has the "right to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries free from threats or acts of force."

The resolution does not make Israeli withdrawal a prerequisite for Arab action. Moreover, it does not specify how much territory Israel is required to give up. The Security Council did not say Israel must withdraw from "all the" territories occupied after the Six-Day war. This was quite deliberate. The Soviet delegate wanted the inclusion of those words and said that their exclusion meant "that part of these territories can remain in Israeli hands." The Arab states pushed for the word "all" to be included, but this was rejected. They nevertheless asserted that they would read the resolution as if it included the word "all." The British Ambassador who drafted the approved resolution, Lord Caradon, declared after the vote: "It is only the resolution that will bind us, and we regard its wording as clear."

This literal interpretation was repeatedly declared to be the correct one by those involved in drafting the resolution. On October 29, 1969, for example, the British Foreign Secretary told the House of Commons the withdrawal envisaged by the resolution would not be from "all the territories." When asked to explain the British position later, Lord Caradon said: "It would have been wrong to demand that Israel return to its positions of June 4, 1967, because those positions were undesirable and artificial."

Similarly, Amb. Goldberg explained: "The notable omissions-which were not accidental-in regard to withdrawal are the words 'the' or 'all' and 'the June 5, 1967 lines'....the resolution speaks of withdrawal from occupied territories without defining the extent of withdrawal."

The resolutions clearly call on the Arab states to make peace with Israel. The principal condition is that Israel withdraw from "territories occupied" in 1967, which means that Israel must withdraw from some, all, or none of the territories still occupied. Since Israel withdrew from 91% of the territories when it gave up the Sinai, it has already partially, if not wholly, fulfilled its obligation under 242.

The Arab states also objected to the call for "secure and recognized boundaries" because they feared this implied negotiations with Israel. The Arab League explicitly ruled this out at Khartoum in August 1967, when it proclaimed the three "noes." Amb. Goldberg explained that this phrase was specifically included because the parties were expected to make "territorial adjustments in their peace settlement encompassing less than a complete withdrawal of Israeli forces from occupied territories, inasmuch as Israel's prior frontiers had proved to be notably insecure."

The question, then, is whether Israel has to give up any additional territory. Now that peace agreements have been signed with Egypt and Jordan, the only remaining territorial disputes are with Lebanon and Syria. Israel's conflict with Lebanon is a result of fighting after 1967 and is therefore irrelevant to 242 (Israel has said it would withdraw to the international border if a treaty is signed and the central government takes control of northern border areas currently in the hands of terrorist groups).

The dispute with Syria is over the Golan Heights. Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin expressed a willingness to negotiate a compromise in exchange for peace; however, President Hafez Assad refused to consider even a limited peace treaty unless Israel first agreed to a complete withdrawal. Under 242, Israel has no obligation to withdraw from any part of the Golan in the absence of a peace accord with Syria.

It is also important to realize that other Arab states that continue to maintain a state of war with Israel, or have refused to grant Israel diplomatic recognition, such as Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Libya have no territorial disputes with Israel. They have nevertheless conditioned their relations (at least rhetorically) on an Israeli withdrawal to the pre-1967 borders.

Although ignored by most analysts, Resolution 242 does have other provisions. One requirement in that section is that freedom of navigation be guaranteed. It is important to remind people this clause was included because a principal cause of the 1967 war was Egypt's blockade of the Strait of Tiran.

Israel's Obligations to the Palestinians

The Palestinians are not mentioned anywhere in Resolution 242. They are only alluded to in the second clause of the second article of 242, which calls for "a just settlement of the refugee problem." Nowhere does it require that Palestinians be given any political rights or territory. In fact, the use of the generic term "refugee" was a deliberate acknowledgment that two refugee problems were products of the conflict-one Arab and another Jewish. In the case of the latter, almost as many Jews fled Arab countries as Palestinians left Israel. The Jews, however, were never compensated by the Arab states, nor were any UN organizations ever established to help them.

In a statement to the General Assembly October 15, 1968, the PLO, rejecting Resolution 242, said "the implementation of said resolution will lead to the loss of every hope for the establishment of peace and security in Palestine and the Middle East region."

By contrast, Amb. Abba Eban expressed Israel's position to the Security Council on May 1, 1968: "My government has indicated its acceptance of the Security Council resolution for the promotion of agreement on the establishment of a just and lasting peace. I am also authorized to reaffirm that we are willing to seek agreement with each Arab State on all matters included in that resolution."

It took nearly a quarter century, but the PLO finally agreed that Resolutions 242 and 338 should be the basis for negotiations with Israel when it signed the Declaration of Principles in September 1993.