The U.S. and "Defensible Borders":
Resolution 242 was a joint product of both the British and U.S. ambassadors to the UN. George Brown, who was British Foreign Secretary in 1967, said 242 "means Israel will not withdraw from all the territories."
What was the source of America's support for Israel? It is important to recall that UN Security Council Resolution 242 of November 22, 1967, was a joint product of both the British ambassador to the UN, Lord Caradon, and the U.S. ambassador to the UN, Arthur Goldberg. This was especially true of the withdrawal clause in the resolution which called on Israeli armed forces to withdraw "from territories" and not "from all the territories" or "from the territories" as the Soviet Union had demanded.
The exclusion of the definite article "the" from the withdrawal clause was not decided by a low-level legal drafting team or even at the ambassadorial level. And it was not just a matter for petty legalists. Rather, President Lyndon Baines Johnson himself decided that it was important to stick to this phraseology, despite the pressure from the Soviet premier, Alexei Kosygin, who had sought to incorporate stricter additional language requiring a full Israel withdrawal.1
The meaning of UN Security Council Resolution 242 was absolutely clear to those who were involved in this drafting process. Thus, Joseph P. Sisco, who would serve as the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs, commented on Resolution 242 during a Meet the Press interview some years later: "I was engaged in the negotiation for months of that resolution. That resolution did not say 'total withdrawal.'"2 This U.S. position had been fully coordinated with the British at the time. Indeed, George Brown, who had served as British foreign secretary in 1967 during Prime Minister Harold Wilson's Labour government, summarized Resolution 242 as follows: "The proposal said, 'Israel will withdraw from territories that were occupied,' not 'from the territories,' which means Israel will not withdraw from all the territories."3
President Johnson's insistence on protecting the territorial flexibility of Resolution 242 could be traced to his statements made on June 19, 1967, in the immediate wake of the Six-Day War. In fact, Johnson declared that "an immediate return to the situation as it was on June 4," before the outbreak of hostilities, was "not a prescription for peace, but for renewed hostilities." He stated that the old "truce lines" had been "fragile and violated." What was needed, in Johnson's view, were "recognized boundaries" that would provide "security against terror, destruction and war."4
In the wake of the Six-Day War, President Lyndon Johnson declared that "an immediate return to the situation as it was on June 4," before the outbreak of hostilities, was "not a prescription for peace, but for renewed hostilities." What was needed were "recognized boundaries" that would provide "security against terror, destruction and war."
Ambassador Goldberg would additionally note sometime later another aspect of the Johnson administration's policy that was reflected in the language of its UN proposals: "Resolution 242 in no way refers to Jerusalem, and this omission was deliberate."5 The U.S. was not about to propose the restoration of the status quo ante in Jerusalem either, even though successive U.S. administrations would at times criticize Israel's construction practices in the eastern parts of Jerusalem that it had captured.
Within a number of years, U.S. diplomacy would reflect the idea that Israel was entitled to changes in the pre-1967 lines. At first, public expressions by the Nixon administration were indeed minimalist; Secretary of State William Rogers declared in 1969 that there would be "insubstantial alterations" of the 1967 lines. At the time, Rogers' policy was severely criticized by Stephen W. Schwebel, the Executive Director of the American Society of International Law, who would become the Legal Advisor of the U.S. Department of State and later serve on the International Court of Justice in The Hague. Schwebel reminded Rogers of Israel's legal rights in the West Bank in the American Journal of International Law (64\344,1970) when he wrote: "Where the prior holder of territory had seized that territory unlawfully, the state which subsequently takes that territory in the lawful exercise of self-defense has, against that prior holder, better title." In the international legal community there was an acute awareness that Jordan, the West Bank's previous occupant prior to 1967, had illegally invaded the West Bank in 1948, while Israel captured the territory in a war of self-defense.
In referring to the 1967 lines, Nixon told Kissinger: "you and I both know they [the Israelis] can't go back to the other borders."
Rogers was soon replaced, in any case, by Henry Kissinger, Nixon's national security advisor, who significantly modified Rogers' position. Already in 1973, in subsequently disclosed private conversations with Kissinger, in referring to the 1967 lines, Nixon explicitly admitted: "you and I both know they [the Israelis] can't go back to the other borders."6 This became evident in September 1975, under the Ford administration, in the context of the Sinai II Disengagement Agreement. While the agreement covered a second Israeli pullout from the Sinai Peninsula, Israel's prime minister at the time, Yitzhak Rabin, achieved a series of understandings with the U.S. that covered other fronts of the Arab-Israeli peace process. For example, President Ford provided Prime Minister Rabin with a letter on the future of the Golan Heights that stated:
The U.S. has not developed a final position on the borders. Should it do so it will give great weight to Israel's position that any peace agreement with Syria must be predicated on Israel remaining on the Golan Heights.7
President Ford wrote to Prime Minister Rabin that the U.S. "will give great weight to Israel's position that any peace agreement with Syria must be predicated on Israel remaining on the Golan Heights."
This carefully drafted language did not detail whether the U.S. would actually accept Israeli sovereignty over parts of the Golan Heights or just the continued presence of the Israel Defense Forces on the Golan plateau. In either case, the Ford letter did not envision a full Israeli pullback to the 1967 lines or even minor modifications of the 1967 border near the Sea of Galilee. These details are not a matter for diplomatic historians alone, for the U.S. explicitly renewed its commitment to the Ford letter just before the 1991 Madrid Peace Conference, when Secretary of State James Baker issued a letter of assurances to Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir. Moreover, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu obtained the recommitment of the Clinton administration to the Ford letter, just prior to the opening of Israel-Palestinian negotiations over Hebron.
It was the administration of President Ronald Reagan that most forcefully articulated Israel's right to defensible borders. Reagan himself stated: "In the pre-1967 borders, Israel was barely ten miles wide at its narrowest point. The bulk of Israel's population lived within artilleryrange of hostile armies. I am not about to ask Israel to live that way again."
It was the administration of President Ronald Reagan that most forcefully articulated Israel's right to defensible borders, just after President Carter appeared to give only lukewarm support for the U.S.-Israeli understandings of the Ford-Kissinger era. Reagan himself stated in his September 1, 1982, address that became known as the "Reagan Plan": "In the pre-1967 borders, Israel was barely ten miles wide at its narrowest point. The bulk of Israel's population lived within artillery range of hostile armies. I am not about to ask Israel to live that way again." Reagan came up with a flexible formula for Israeli withdrawal: "The extent to which Israel should be asked to give up territory will be heavily affected by the extent of the peace and normalization."8 Secretary of State George Shultz was even more explicit about what this meant during a September 1988 address: "Israel will never negotiate from or return to the 1967 borders."9
Secretary of State George Shultz was even more explicit: "Israel will never negotiate from or return to the 1967 borders."
What did Shultz mean by his statement? Was he recognizing Israeli rights to retain large portions of the West Bank? A half year earlier, he demonstrated considerable diplomatic creativity in considering alternatives to a full Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 lines. He even proposed what was, in effect, a "functional compromise" in the West Bank, as opposed to a "territorial compromise." Shultz was saying that the West Bank should be divided between Israel and the Jordanians according to different functions of government, and not in terms of drawing new internal borders. In an address to the Council on Foreign Relations in February 1988, he asserted: "the meaning of sovereignty, the meaning of territory, is changing, and what any national government can control, or what any unit that thinks it has sovereignty or jurisdiction over a certain area can control, is shifting gears."10
In his memoirs, Shultz elaborated on his 1988 address. He wrote that he had spoken to both Israeli and Jordanian leaders in the spirit of his speech and argued that "who controls whatÉwould necessarily vary over such diverse functions as external security, maintenance of law and order, access to limited supplies of water, management of education, health, and other civic functions, and so forth."11 The net effect of this thinking was to protect Israel's security interests and provide it with a defensible border that would be substantially different from the 1967 lines.
U.S. support for defensible borders had clearly become bipartisan and continued into the 1990s, even as the Palestinians replaced Jordan as the primary Arab claimant to the West Bank. At the time of the completion of the 1997 Hebron Protocol, Secretary of State Warren Christopher wrote a letter of assurances to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In the Christopher letter, the Clinton administration basically stated that it was not going to second-guess Israel about its security needs: "a hallmark of U.S. policy remains our commitment to work cooperatively to seek to meet the security needs that Israel identifies" (emphasis added). This meant that Israel would be the final arbiter of its defense needs. Christopher then added: "Finally, I would like to reiterate our position that Israel is entitled to secure and defensible borders (emphasis added), which should be directly negotiated and agreed with its neighbors."12
In summary, there is no basis to the argument that the U.S. has traditionally demanded of Israel either a full withdrawal or a nearly full withdrawal from the territories it captured in the 1967 Six-Day War. This is particularly true of the West Bank and Gaza Strip where only armistice lines were drawn in 1949, reflecting where embattled armies had halted their advance and no permanent international borders existed. The only development that has altered this American stance in support of defensible borders in the past involved changes in the Israeli position to which the U.S. responded.
About two weeks before he completed his second term in office, President Bill Clinton presented his own plan for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on January 7, 2001. The Clinton parameters were partly based on the proposals made by Israel's prime minister, Ehud Barak, at the failed Camp David Summit of July 2000.
In the territorial sphere, Clinton spoke about Israel annexing "settlement blocs" in the West Bank. However, he made this annexation of territory by Israel conditional upon a "land swap" taking place, according to which Israel would concede territory under its sovereignty before 1967 in exchange for any new West Bank land. This "land swap" was not required by UN Resolution 242, but was a new Israeli concession made during the Barak government that Clinton adopted; it should be noted for the record, however, that Maj.-Gen. (res.) Danny Yatom, who served as the head of Barak's foreign and defense staff, has argued that Barak himself never offered these "land swaps" at Camp David.
Additionally, under the Clinton parameters, Israel was supposed to withdraw from the Jordan Valley (which Rabin sought to retain) and thereby give up on defensible borders. Instead, Clinton proposed an "international presence" to replace the Israel Defense Forces. This particular component of the proposals severely compromised Israel's doctrine of self-reliance in matters of defense and seemed to ignore Israel's problematic history with the UN and other international forces in even more limited roles such as peace monitoring.
Prior to their formal release, the Chief of Staff of the Israel Defense Forces, Lt.-Gen. Shaul Mofaz, severely criticized the Clinton parameters before the Israeli cabinet as a virtual disaster for Israel: Yediot Ahronot reported on December 29, 2000, his judgment that: "The Clinton bridging proposal is inconsistent with Israel's security interests and, if it will be accepted, it will threaten the security of the state" (emphasis added).
The Clinton parameters did not become official U.S. policy. After President George W. Bush came into office, U.S. officials informed the newly elected Sharon government that it would not be bound by proposals made by the Barak team at Camp David, which served as the basis for the Clinton parameters. In short, Clinton's retreat from defensible borders was off the table.
The best proof that the U.S. had readopted its traditional policy that Israel was entitled to defensible borders came from the letter of assurances written by President Bush to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on April 14, 2004, after the presentation in Washington of Israel's disengagement plan from the Gaza Strip. Bush wrote: "The United States reiterates its steadfast commitment to Israel's security, including secure and defensible borders, and to preserve and strengthen Israel's capability to deter and defend itself, by itself, against any threat or possible combination of threats."13 Here, then, was an implicit link suggested between the letter's reference to defensible borders and Israel's self-defense capabilities, by virtue of the fact that they were coupled together in the very same sentence.
President Bush wrote to Prime Minister Sharon on April 14, 2004: "In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli population centers, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949."
Bush clearly did not envision Israel withdrawing to the 1967 lines. Later in his letter he stated: "In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli population centers, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949." Bush did not use the term "settlement blocs," as Clinton did, but appeared to be referring to the same idea. Less than a year later, on March 27, 2005, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice explained on Israel Radio that "Israeli population centers" referred to "the large settlement blocs" in the West Bank.14
More significantly, Bush did not make the retention of "Israeli population centers" in the West Bank contingent upon Israel agreeing to land swaps, using territory under Israeli sovereignty from within the pre-1967 borders as Clinton had insisted. In that sense, Bush restored the original terms of reference in the peace process that had been contained in Resolution 242 by confining the territorial issue to Israel's east to the dispute over the ultimate status of the West Bank without involving any additional territorial exchanges.
Bush's recognition of Israel's right to defensible borders was the most explicit expression of the U.S. stand on the subject, for the Bush letter, as a whole, recognized clear-cut modifications of the pre-1967 lines. Moreover, by linking the idea of defensible borders to Israel's defensive capabilities, as noted above, Bush was making clear that a "defensible border" had to improve Israel's ability to provide for its own security. True, a "secure boundary," as mentioned in Resolution 242, included that interpretation as well. But it could also imply a boundary that was secured by U.S. security guarantees, NATO troops, or even other international forces. Bush's letter did not contain this ambiguity, but rather specifically tied defensible borders to Israel's ability to defend itself.
The Bush letter made clear that a "defensible border" had to improve Israel's ability to provide for its own security.
On March 25, 2005, the U.S. Ambassador to Israel, Dan Kurtzer, was quoted in the Israeli daily Yediot Ahronot as saying that there was no U.S.-Israeli "understanding" over Israel's retention of West Bank settlement blocs. Kurtzer denied the Yediot report. Yet the story raised the question of what kind of commitment the Bush letter exactly constituted. In U.S. practice, a treaty is the strongest form of inter-state commitment, followed by an executive agreement (such as a Memorandum of Understanding without congressional ratification). Still, an exchange of letters provides an international commitment as well. Kurtzer himself reiterated this point on Israel's Channel 10 television: "Those commitments are very, very firm with respect to these Israeli population centers; our expectation is that Israel is not going to be going back to the 1967 lines." When asked if these "population centers" were "settlement blocs," he replied: "That's correct."15
Separately, Bush has introduced the idea of a viable and contiguous Palestinian state, which has territorial implications. At a minimum, contiguity refers to creating an unobstructed connection between all the West Bank cities, so that a Palestinian could drive from Jenin to Hebron. Palestinians might construe American references to contiguity as including a Palestinian-controlled connection from the West Bank to the Gaza Strip, like the "safe passage" mentioned in the Oslo Accords. But this would entail bifurcating Israel in two. In any case, there is no international legal right of states to have a sovereign connection between parts that are geographically separated: The U.S. has no sovereign territorial connection between Alaska and the State of Washington. Similarly, there is no such sovereign connection between the parts of other geographically separated states, like Oman. On February 21, 2005, President Bush clarified that his administration's call for territorial contiguity referred specifically to the West Bank.
There is no international legal right of states to have a sovereign connection between parts that are geographically separated: The U.S. does not have a sovereign territorial connection between Alaska and the State of Washington.
In conclusion, historically the U.S. has not insisted on a full Israeli withdrawal to the 1949 armistice lines from the territories that Israel captured in the 1967 War. Yet it is still possible to ask what value these American declarations have if they are made with the additional provision that the ultimate location of Arab-Israeli borders must be decided by the parties themselves. This is particularly true of the 2004 Bush letter which reiterates this point explicitly.
Clearly the U.S. cannot impose the Bush letter on Israel and the Palestinians, if they refuse to accept its terms. The Bush letter only updates and summarizes the U.S. view of the correct interpretation of UN Resolution 242 in any future negotiations. Its importance emanates from two contexts:
The fact that the April 2003 Quartet roadmap is silent on the subject of Israel's future borders and those of the proposed Palestinian state. At least the Bush letter protects Israel's vital interests prior to the beginning of any future negotiations. It is tantamount to a diplomatic safety net for Israel.
To the extent that other members of the Quartet (Russia, the EU, or the UN) propose that the borders of the Palestinian state in the future be the 1967 lines, the Bush letter essentially says that the U.S. will not be a party to such an initiative.
What is left now for Israel to do is to provide further details as to the territorial meaning of defensible borders and to reach a more specific understanding with the U.S. regarding its content.
What is left now for Israel to do is to provide further details as to the territorial meaning of defensible borders and to reach a more specific understanding with the U.S. regarding its content, given the fact that it has become an integral part of the American diplomatic lexicon for the Arab-Israeli peace process.
In the future, would the United States remain sympathetic to Israel's security concerns so that such understandings can be reached? After all, much of the U.S. positioning on defensible borders began to be articulated during the Cold War. Additionally, in a post-Iraq War Middle East, in which the threat to Israel from its eastern front has been diminished in the immediate term, would the U.S. still back defensible borders? There is a threefold answer to this question. First, the permanence of the changes in the Middle East in 2005 cannot be taken for granted by any defense planner. Even the U.S. retains residual capabilities in the event that the intentions of Russia and China were to change in the future.
The permanence of the changes in the Middle East in 2005 cannot be taken for granted by any defense planner. Even the U.S. retains residual capabilities in the event that the intentions of Russia and China were to change in the future.
Second, Israel's need for defensible borders also has a context in the war on terrorism. If Israel cedes control over the Jordan Valley, for example, large-scale weapons smuggling to terrorist groups in the West Bank hills that dominate Israel's coastal plain would become more prevalent. The 9/11 Commission asserted that the struggle to transform the Middle East in order to undercut the threats from the new global terrorism will take decades.16 Thus, Israel has a sound basis for insisting that even after the 2003 Iraq War, its quest for defensible borders remains fully warranted.
Third, during the Clinton years, Washington was sympathetic to the idea of deploying UN and other international forces as a tool for peace-building. This was expressed in the 2001 Clinton proposals for placing international peacekeepers in the Jordan Valley instead of the Israel Defense Forces. Clearly, enthusiasm for such UN deployments has drastically declined since then, with the disasters that have become associated with UN peacekeeping missions throughout the last decade.
An alternative that might be raised by those who nonetheless seek to remove Israeli forces from the Jordan Valley would be the deployment of U.S. forces, or a non-UN multilateral body like the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO) in Egyptian Sinai. Yet such a course of action could pose great risks for the troops involved. In the sparsely-populated Sinai Peninsula, U.S. troops are isolated; they only monitor on the ground the implementation of an inter-state agreement between Israel and Egypt. In contrast, in the Jordan Valley they would be closer to Palestinian population centers and involved in a counter-terrorist mission.
Under such conditions, one cannot rule out attacks against Western forces, like the bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983. While Hamas and Islamic Jihad have not launched attacks against Western targets overseas, nonetheless, they would view any Western presence in what became Palestinian territory through the same ideological prism as militant Islamist groups in the Arabian Peninsula.17 The Palestinians already attacked a U.S. diplomatic convoy in the Gaza Strip on October 15, 2003, killing three Americans, although it has not been ascertained whether or not Islamist motives were involved.
In short, there are no workable substitutes for Israel protecting itself with defensible borders, given the array of threats it is still likely to face.
For Hamas, any Western military deployment in the Jordan Valley would be viewed in the same way that Islamist groups in the Arabian Peninsula perceived the U.S. presence.
1. Premier Kosygin wrote to President Johnson on November 21, 1967, requesting that the UK draft resolution, that was to become Resolution 242, include the word "the" before the word "territories." Johnson wrote back the same day refusing the Soviet request. The Soviet deputy foreign minister, Kuznetsov, tried the same day in New York to insert the word "all," but was rebuffed. See Foreign Relations of the United States, 1967-1968, volume XIX, Arab-Israeli Crisis and War 1967, http://www.stage.gov/r/pa/ho/frus/johnsonlb/xix/28070.htm
2. Adnan Abu Odeh, Nabil Elaraby, Meir Rosenne, Dennis Ross, Eugene Rostow, and Vernon Turner, UN Security Council Resolution 242: The Building Block of Peacemaking (Washington, D.C.: Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 1993), p. 88.
3. See Meir Rosenne, in ibid., p. 31.
4. Speech by President Lyndon Johnson, June 19, 1967; http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/US-Israel/lbjpeace.html
5. Arthur J. Goldberg, Letter to the Editor of The New York Times, March 5, 1980.
6. Henry Kissinger, Crisis: The Anatomy of Two Major Foreign Policy Crises (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2003), p. 140.
7. Letter from President Ford to Prime Minister Rabin, September 1, 1975; http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Peace/ford_rabin_letter.html
8. Speech by President Ronald Reagan, September 1, 1982; http://www.reagan.utexas. edu/resource/speeches/1982/90182d.htm
9. Secretary of State George P. Shultz's address, September 16, 1988; http://www.findarticles. com/p/articles/mi_m1079/is_n2140_v88/ai_6876262
10. George P. Shultz, Turmoil and Triumph: My Years as Secretary of State (New York: Charles Schribner's Sons, 1993), p. 1022.
11. Ibid., p. 1023.
12. Letter of U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher, January 17, 1997; http://mfa.gov.il/mfa/go.asp?MFAH00qo0
13. Exchange of letters between President Bush and Prime Minister Sharon, April 14, 2004; http://www.mfa.gov.il/MFA/Peace+ Process/Reference+Documents/Exchange+of+letters+Sharon-Bush+14-Apr-2004.htm
14. Aluf Benn, "PM: Understanding With U.S. About West Bank Settlement Blocs Holds Firm," Ha'aretz, March 27, 2005.
15. http://www.usembassy-israel.org.il/publish /mission/amb/032505b.html
16. The 9/11 Commission Report (Authorized Edition) (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2004), p. 363.
17. "Will a Gaza 'Hamas-stan' Become a Future Al-Qaeda Sanctuary?" Yaakov Amidror and David Keyes, Jerusalem Viewpoints, November 1, 2004; http://jcpa.org/jl/vp524. htm