United Nations Security Council Resolution 242, adopted after the June 1967 war, was a milestone in the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict because it gave the international imprimatur to the concept of “land for peace”: an Israeli withdrawal from territories it had occupied in the 1967 war in return for peace with the Arab world. Both the resolution and the concept implied a negotiations process between the parties and remained the basis for efforts to resolve the conflict for decades thereafter, despite initial Palestinian hostility to Resolution 242 and the claim by partisans of Israel that it does not call for a total Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories. In declaring independence in 1988 and in signing the Oslo Agreement in 1993, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) accepted Resolution 242 and agreed that it should be the basis for negotiations with Israel.
The 1967 war sparked renewed international efforts to resolve the conflict between Israel and the Arab states. In the months after the war ended, the UN Security Council worked hard to develop a resolution that could provide the basis for an Arab-Israeli peace after nearly twenty years of conflict. One of the principal authors of Resolution 242 was the British diplomat Lord Caradon. Working closely with the United States, Caradon developed a resolution that lacked clear and binding mechanisms for implementation and whose wording was vague enough to ensure acceptance by the entire council, which it did, passing unanimously on 22 November 1967.
Resolution 242 emphasized “the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war and the need to work for a just and lasting peace in which every State in the area can live in security.” It therefore lay the basis for a settlement based on Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories and the Arab states’ commitment to accepting the fact that Israel, while not named in the text, had a right to exist in peace and security. Specifically, Resolution 242 called for the “withdrawal of Israel armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict” and the “termination of all claims or states of belligerency and respect for and acknowledgment of the sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence of every State in the area and their right to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries free from threats or acts of force.”
To achieve this outcome, the resolution called for the UN secretary-general to appoint a special representative to travel to the Middle East and assist in brokering a lasting peace. UN Secretary-General U Thant quickly appointed Gunnar Jarring of Sweden for this purpose. Jarring began his mission in December 1967. The governments of Jordan, Egypt, and Israel accepted Resolution 242 and agreed to work with him, but by early 1973, he abandoned his mission because he had not made progress. The lack of progress, largely due to U.S. support for Israel and the regional balance of power in favor of Israel, led to the launching of the October 1973 war by Egypt and Syria. Security Council Resolution 338 (22 October) that ended the fighting with a call for a cease-fire, reaffirmed Resolution 242 and the necessity of its implementation through negotiations. With Syria accepting Resolution 338 (and thus implicitly Resolution 242), the underlying principle of land-for-peace was reaffirmed as the main basis of international and American peacemaking efforts on the three fronts with Israel (i.e. those of Egypt, Jordan, and Syria).
However, in the years since the adoption of Resolution 242, various supporters of Israel have insisted that the resolution does not oblige Israel to withdraw from all the territories it conquered in 1967. They argue that the actual English language words in the resolution call for an Israeli withdrawal from “territories occupied” in the war as opposed to “the territories occupied.” Caradon and others have written that use of “territories” rather than “the territories” was deliberate, the implication being that, following negotiations with the Arab states and in order to attain “secure and recognized boundaries,” Israel will have to withdraw from some, but not necessarily all, of the territories occupied in 1967. Others reject this interpretation, often pointing to the official French version of the resolution, which includes a definite article, referring to withdrawal from “des territoires.”
Insofar as the Egyptian-Israeli front is concerned, the peace treaty signed by the two countries in 1979 referred to Resolution 242 and provided for Israeli withdrawal to the international border between Egypt and Mandate Palestine (without prejudice to the status of the Gaza Strip). This gave ammunition to both interpretations of the withdrawal clause in Resolution 242. Supporters of Israel have maintained that, by withdrawing from the Sinai, Israel has no longer an obligation to withdraw elsewhere. Others have asserted that the complete withdrawal from Sinai is a precedent to be applied to the other fronts.
As to the Palestinian dimension of the Arab-Israeli conflict, Resolution 242 had referred only to “a just settlement of the refugee problem.” (Some pro-Israel advocates assert that the term “refugee” refers also to Jews who left Arab countries and moved to Israel.) Because the resolution dealt with the Arab-Israeli conflict as a conflict between existing states, it did not treat the West Bank and Gaza Strip as a distinct territory. One should add that the resolution was adopted at a time when the PLO was not yet recognized as a meaningful actor and as representative of the Palestinian people. However, this was no longer the case after the 1973 war, when negotiations for a comprehensive settlement occupied the international agenda. By then, the PLO wanted to replace Jordan (and Egypt) as the only party entitled to negotiate the future of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. While the PLO had rejected Resolution 242 in 1967 because it implied Arab recognition of Israel’s “sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence,” now it based its rejection on the ground that the resolution failed to mention the political and national dimension of the Palestinian problem and reduced the question of the Palestinians to a humanitarian one focused on refugees.
In various diplomatic efforts pursued by the United States in the 1970s and 1980s, Palestinian acceptance of Resolution 242 became a key condition placed on the PLO for it to be a party in the negotiations. The PLO’s signal that it would take such a step, provided the resolution was amended to include a reference to Palestinian national rights, did not elicit a positive American response. The PLO finally accepted the resolution in 1988, when it proclaimed the establishment of a Palestinian state, considering that since the resolution dealt with existing states, nothing prevented the newly proclaimed state from negotiating the withdrawal of Israel from the Palestinian territory according to the principles set in Resolution 242.
Today, after almost half a century since its adoption by the Security Council, and more than a quarter century since the establishment of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, Resolution 242 is still not implemented on the Palestinian or the Syrian front. The irony is that the PLO, after its long rejection of the resolution, now insists on its relevance because it constitutes the only common legal instrument acknowledged by the United States and Israel, and thus supports the demand that negotiations concerning borders be based on the pre-1967 lines. At the same time, Israel’s official acceptance of the resolution has been contradicted by its actions on the ground through the annexation of Jerusalem and the construction of Jewish settlements in the occupied territories.
Dajani, Omar M. “Forty Years Without Resolve: Tracing the Influence of Security Council Resolution 242 on the Middle East Peace Process.” Journal of Palestine Studies 37, no.1 (Autumn 2007): 24–38.
Falk, Richard. “Forty Years after 242: A ‘Canonical’ Text in Disrepute?” Journal of Palestine Studies 37, no.1 (Autumn 2007): 39–48.
Lynk, Michael. “Conceived in Law: The Legal Foundations of Resolution 242.” Journal of Palestine Studies 37, no.1 (Autumn 2007): 7–23.
Quandt, William B. Decade of Decisions: American Foreign Policy Toward the Arab-Israeli Conflict, 1967–1976. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977.
Quigley, John. “Security Council Resolution 242 and the Right of Repatriation.” Journal of Palestine Studies 37, no.1 (Autumn 2007): 49–61.