Where Are the Borders?
Palestinian Authority officials, evidently terrified that talks with Israel might actually lead somewhere, have predictably placed yet another obstacle on the way. They are now claiming that they received a guarantee from Secretary of State Kerry that negotiations over a two-state solution would be based on the 1949 Armistice lines, before they were obliterated during the Six-Day War. Even such a promise, if it exists, would be all but worthless. It blatantly contradicts United Nations Security Council Resolution 242, ratified five months after the war, which set the parameters for future negotiations and agreements between Israel, Arab states, and the Palestine Liberation Organization.
According to the Resolution, “the establishment of a just and lasting peace in the Middle East” required “withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict” – but not from “the territories” or “all the territories.” The absence of “the,” the famous missing definite article, was neither an accident nor an afterthought. It resulted from what American Undersecretary for Political Affairs Eugene V. Rostow, who played a major role in drafting Resolution 242, described as more than five months of “vehement public diplomacy” to decisively clarify its meaning.
Rostow correctly asserted that according to international law “the Jewish right of settlement west of the Jordan River” was “unassailable.” Under the terms of the League of Nations Mandate for Palestine following World War I, Jews received the right of “close settlement” in that territory. That guarantee applied to biblical Judea and Samaria, which became Jordan’s “West Bank” between 1949-67, no less than to Tel Aviv and Haifa.
No restriction on Jewish settlement, wherever it had been guaranteed by the League of Nations Mandate forty-five years earlier, was adopted by the United Nations in 1967. Proposals requiring Israel to withdraw from all the territory it had acquired in the Six-Day War were defeated in both the Security Council and the General Assembly. “The Jewish right of settlement in the area,” Rostow concluded, “is equivalent in every way to the right of the existing Palestinian population to live there.”
Unless Secretary Kerry unilaterally decided to unravel Resolution 242, which he is not empowered to do, Israel retains the international assurance that any eventual withdrawal from “occupied territory” need not be total. Indeed, the UN Resolution only refers to Israeli “armed forces.” There is not a word about Israeli civilians – commonly known as “settlers” – for there were none then. Now some 400,000 Israelis live east of the Armistice line that Arab intransigence and belligerence obliterated.
If Israeli negotiators are doing their job properly, the Palestinian kerfluffle over Kerry’s “guarantees” most likely reflects the dawning realization that the imagined boundaries of a Palestinian state, should one emerge, will be significantly smaller than their non-negotiable fantasies require. To be sure, Prime Minister Netanyahu is on the other side of the negotiating table, in power if not in person. A sharp critic of the Oslo Accords until he became prime minister for the first time in 1996, he quickly capitulated after an eruption of Palestinian violence and international pressure and signed the Hebron Protocol a year later. It redeployed Israeli military forces from 80 percent of the ancient biblical city, confining six hundred vulnerable Jewish residents to a tiny ghetto. Jews were not permitted to inhabit Jewish-owned property in the Arab zone.
In his forthcoming October address at Bar Ilan University, where Netanyahu embraced a “two-state” solution four years ago after a political lifetime of opposition to that outcome, he is likely to reveal whether, this time around, he can resist Obama administration arm-twisting. Before he speaks, he would be well advised to reread UN Resolution 242. He might even consider proclaiming that settling the Land of Israel defines Zionism.
Jerold S. Auerbach is Professor Emeritus of History at Wellesley College.