Today marks exactly 50 years since the United Nations Security Council unanimously passed one of its most cited and most misunderstood resolutions. UNSC Resolution 242 established a diplomatic framework for dealing with the aftermath of Israel’s lightning victory over a coalition of Arab states in the Six-Day War, and it did so in a manner that diverged dramatically from accepted precedent.
The resolution itself is remarkably short and, fittingly for a diplomatic initiative that needed to appeal to all four belligerent parties plus both major superpowers, deliberately ambiguous on many key points. It establishes two central steps for settling the conflict, namely territorial withdrawal from Israel and recognition and peace from the Arabs, while affirming three other, secondary, principles: freedom of navigation, a “just settlement of the refugee problem,” and territorial inviolability. All five principles are to be effected as the outcome of a diplomatic process.
No demands are presented unconditionally to any of the parties in the manner of other UNSC resolutions at the end of Arab-Israeli wars, which established and sought to enforce ceasefires. There was no need. The Security Council resolution that passed at the end of the 1973 war temporarily froze all sides’ forces in their current positions, while the 2006 resolution included demands for an immediate Israeli withdrawal to the 1949 Blue Line, as well as a first-ever redeployment of Lebanese forces in accordance with the 1990 agreement that ended the Lebanese Civil War. But in 1967, the resolution that passed didn’t come right at the end of the war in June, but five months later in November.
A great deal of ink and anguish have been expended on the disagreements in interpreting the text of 242, particularly on the barren discussion of the missing definite article in the clause dealing with the “withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict.” More broadly, there has never been a consensus on the balance of the two primary principles. Israel has always preferred to think of it as partial territory and full peace; the Arabs, full territory and partial peace; and the international community eventually, but by no means immediately, coalesced around a reading of full withdrawal and full peace. In retrospect, the model that might have been most fruitful was the one that has generally reigned in other postwar settlements involving territorial conquests: partial territory and partial peace.
But the truly remarkable aspects of 242 are precisely those about which there was no real disagreement at all, but rather a broad unspoken consensus. The first is the complete absence of the Palestinians. In a certain sense, there is nothing surprising about this. The war was fought between four states, and it is their problems and demands (withdrawals, recognition, waterways, and so on) that had to be addressed, not the Palestinians’.
Accordingly, the Palestinians are only obliquely referenced in the clause on the “refugee problem.” We can choose to read this clause very narrowly as only referring to the refugees emerging from the June 1967 war that the resolution dealt with, but this seems to miss the point. By November, the refugees from the June war were already largely being dealt with in the standard manner for war refugees, with many returning home and others being resettled. We can choose to read this clause very broadly to include all refugees from Arab-Israeli conflicts over time, but again this would be to address a large problem (hundreds of thousands of Jews displaced from Arab lands after 1948, as well as hundreds of thousands of Jewish displaced persons from Europe at the end of World War II) that had already been solved by the time this resolution was passed. The only reasonable reading of the refugee clause is as a politically palatable reference to the ongoing crisis of displaced civilians from the losing side of a previous war, nineteen years before the one which the resolution ostensibly seeks to treat.
The second major point of consensus has even more fateful consequences. By leaving any determination about territories and borders to a diplomatic settlement, 242 effectively (if inadvertently) froze in place a special territorial regime which I will call the “semi-permanent occupation.” The resolution gave no room for Israel to make any substantial modifications to its prewar borders—themselves only armistice lines rather than internationally recognized borders—and it gave the Arab states no room for recovering any of the territory they lost except through a peace process which would, at a minimum, entail “respect for and acknowledgment of the sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence” of Israel.
Needless to say, it gave no room for any party to pursue what we now call the “two-state solution.” No party spoke for the Palestinians in the first place, and any independent Israeli move would have been regarded as the establishment of a puppet regime on territory still claimed by Jordan (and possibly Egypt as well).
And thus, the basic parameters of the semi-permanent occupation (SPO) were born. The resolution involved no annexation, no withdrawal, and no new line — a sharp and significant departure from usual postwar diplomatic processes.
In general, most wars involving territorial conquest have been followed by a diplomatic process I’ll call the “standard model.” Territory is conquered, usually by the winning side but sometimes by the losing side as well, but it doesn’t stay occupied for long after the war ends. A new line is drawn, generally to the advantage of the side that won the war, and all the remaining occupied territory is restored to the losing side. The new line might be a formal boundary, and it might just delineate an armistice or a long-term truce. It might not even be agreed upon by the belligerent parties, but rather come from multi-party talks or an international conference or superpower imposition.
It’s not difficult to imagine how such an adjustment might have taken place in the aftermath of Israel’s astonishing victory in June 1967. But the fact remains that it did not, with grave and unforeseen consequences for all parties involved. The reasons for this divergence from the standard model flow from four complicating properties of the 1967 war—and one unique property of the larger Arab-Israeli conflict.
When two countries fight a war over a disputed territory, and one country’s army makes substantial gains across a front (or even if both do), it’s pretty clear where to start a diplomatic process. But the Six-Day War directly involved the armies of four countries across three separate fronts. Notably, the only truly quiet frontier for Israel at the time was the established and internationally recognized border with Lebanon. Complicating matters even further, the three members of the Arab coalition arrayed against Israel in the war comprised members of opposite sides of deeply divided rival Arab alliance systems. Ongoing mistrust and intrigue meant that any diplomatic breakthrough by Jordan could be sabotaged by Egypt and Syria, and vice versa.
The previous Arab-Israeli war saw Israel conquer much of the same territory from Egypt in a similar span of time in October 1956. Within less than four months, all Israeli forces were withdrawn from the Sinai in an international settlement that restored Egyptian sovereignty over occupied territory, secured Israeli shipping rights in the Gulf of Aqaba, established a multinational force patrolling the joint border, and included a tacit understanding that Egypt would not use the Gaza Strip as a base for attacks against Israel. This settlement held for eleven largely peaceful years, and there is no reason why a similar settlement couldn’t have been hammered out between Israel and Egypt in the subsequent war, but for the fact that the subsequent war saw Israel and Egypt fighting across one front of a much more complicated encounter.
For an even more imperfect analogy, we can compare the different paths to final peace settlements with Germany and Japan after 1945. Japan was occupied by one country, the United States, and a final peace settlement was signed in 1951. By 1952 Japan was a full member of the United Nations, the organization first declared during wartime to defeat it as well as Germany, and whose postwar charter still exempts both countries from the protections against foreign aggression. Six years might seem like a long time to reach a peace treaty, but consider that the Austrian State Treaty (and the subsequent withdrawal of occupying Allied armies) only happened ten years after the war’s end in 1955. The Germans entered the UN only in 1973, and the final settlement between Germany and the four countries that occupied it in 1945 had to wait until 1990. (Peace treaties with other defeated Axis powers were much simpler endeavors. Italy, Bulgaria, Hungary, and Romania all accepted border changes which were mostly to their respective disadvantage.)
Multiple fronts and competing alliances make for a much more complex postwar situation, even in cases where one side can claim a decisive victory. But the problem of multiple fronts is rendered even more acute here by one very special front that throws up its own challenges. Those challenges themselves emerged from both of the unspoken consensuses of 242: no territorial changes without a full deal, and no mention of the Palestinian problem. Fifty years on, it’s easy to see how the entirety of the Arab-Israeli conflict can nearly be reduced to the attempt to find an adequate agreement on the West Bank and Jerusalem. It is obvious today that the most lasting rupture of the war was on the Israeli-Jordanian front, and that this rupture survives long after the Israelis and Jordanians themselves signed a full peace treaty.
But this was not obvious at the time. On the contrary, a downgrading of this front was a necessary corollary of the two quiet areas of agreement alluded to above. The front that mattered most to the superpowers and the international community was the Israeli-Egyptian one, which was and remains the bloodiest front of the Arab-Israeli conflict. That conflict is now a century old and has claimed more than 90,000 lives, but at least half of those were in five Israeli-Egyptian wars in a 25-year period from 1948 to 1973. And it was Israeli-Egyptian fighting in the early 1970s which nearly brought the superpowers into direct confrontation and led them, very briefly, to exchange nuclear threats.
In hindsight, however, it is clear that Israel’s rapid, unplanned conquest of the West Bank from Jordan upended nearly every aspect of the Arab-Israeli conflict in ways that are beyond the scope of this essay. The new situation on this front was quite unlike anything the standard model had ever been called on to deal with. For one, there were not two parties, one on each side of the line, fighting and then negotiating over where it should run, but three: Israelis, Jordanians, and Palestinians. Each of the three had valid historical and legal claims to make on the West Bank, and while no pair had the means of concluding an agreement on its own, each one of the three had the means of sabotaging any diplomatic progress the other two might make. Moreover, 242 held the land in a legal limbo, with no country legally exercising sovereignty and one of the three claimants having no legally constituted government at all.
It is true, of course, that Jordanian sovereignty over the West Bank before 1967 was not internationally recognized and that the Green Line separating it from Israel was not an international border but merely an armistice line. But Jordan governed the West Bank as an integral part of the monarchy, not as an occupied territory, and certainly not as an occupied territory that also hosted an entitled minority of settlers. Nothing like this situation obtained after the war. A cross-party consensus held that the Israelis could not incorporate the West Bank into Israel itself, that the Jordanians could not recover the West Bank without making peace with Israel, and that the Palestinians, who had no state and no army and did not fight in the war, were not a party to the 242 diplomatic process, if one ever genuinely got underway. This consensus was a dead end.
With the passage of time, the growth of a large Israeli settler population only complicated the matter. At the same time, the easing out of Jordan as a player on this front and the establishment of a Palestinian Authority—by international treaty and eventually even something resembling electoral legitimacy—allowed for both limited self-government and the prospect of at least a partial settlement. But the contours of the 242 status quo, with its semi-permanent occupation in wait of a full diplomatic peace without the tools for attaining it, remain unchanged.
Another factor in the divergence from the standard model is the rapidity of Israel’s military victory. A short war suggests a decisive victor, which should, intuitively, mean an easier process of reaching a postwar settlement. On closer inspection, the opposite is the case. In a longer war, the situation on the ground reflects changes brought about by the successes and failures of the warring parties. Refugees have fled to one side or the other of the front, provisional governments are providing essential services, and so forth.
By the time fighting over Mandate Palestine ended in 1949, not only had the demographic balance in the country begun to fit more or less along the lines of the opposing armies, there was no obvious alternative to armistice lines that resembled closely the placements of forces at the end of fighting. The only two other existing options were not remotely feasible. Israel could not just inherit the borders of the Mandate as most other post-colonial states did, since nearly a quarter of it was occupied by Arab armies and there was zero Jewish population remaining in those areas. And Israel was not going to retreat to the UN partition lines, as they were demographically no longer relevant, would have rewarded the Arab rejection and attempt at ethnic cleansing if not worse, and, most importantly, there was no Palestinian-Arab state or provisional government to take possession of these lands and govern them.
In 1967, very little had changed on the ground during the week of fighting. And the UN Security Council resolution that sought to deal with the aftermath wasn’t imposing a ceasefire as in other wars, because all fire had ceased long before anyone got around to writing up the resolution. Furthermore, the ceasefire lines (the river to the east, the canal to the west) were clear and defensible to all sides, so there was no rush by any party to get negotiations underway, as there would be between Egypt and Israel at the end of the 1973 war, when ceasefire lines left both sides worrying about exposed positions far from reasonable supply chains.
The shortness of the war was probably not pivotal to the stalemate of the semi-permanent occupation, but it certainly contributed. Another time-related aspect of the war would turn out to be much more fateful.
Temporal factors are unique in this war not just because of its short duration, but also because of its timing. Postwar outcomes that more closely resemble the “standard model” are typical for border wars occurring during periods of great global instability, particularly the fluid periods that follow the collapse of an old global order and the gradual coalescing of its replacement by a new one. The last century saw three such periods: roughly 1917-1924, 1944-1953, and 1989-1995.
If you set out to pick the one year in the entire twentieth century that is farthest from any such fluid period, you would land on 1967: the exact midpoint of the post-World War II global order, coming 22 years after Hiroshima and 22 years before the fall of the Berlin Wall. The war began and rapidly ended at the peak of Cold War-era stable bipolarity. Global statesmen were not converging upon the Congress of Vienna or the Versailles Conference to hash out new borders and impose grand diplomatic settlements on warring parties; they were actively engaged in maintaining a comfortable status quo.
In any case, as we have seen, what concerned the superpowers at this time was the Israeli-Egyptian conflict—something that would concern them even more six years later, when its fifth eruption in a generation nearly dragged both powers into a nuclear confrontation.
This factor, more than any other directly related to the war itself, explains much of the 242 anomaly. Backwards-looking memories place the 1967 war at the center of the Cold War conflict, but in reality it was peripheral. Israel was not yet a major U.S. client, and Jordan was not then or ever a Soviet ally. The war happened off the edges of the global alliance structure, and far away from any major conflict that would have necessitated the kind of grand, border-changing, state-creating, diplomatic initiative that accompanied equally peripheral wars in the three more fluid periods of 20th-century diplomacy.
Other factors explain the novelty of 242 as well, especially the impulse to “learn lessons” from previous rounds of postwar diplomacy and the inevitable over-learning that such an impulse generates. None of the four factors discussed above — multiple fronts, multiple players on one front, short duration, and inauspicious timing in the global order — is unique in its own right, but the combination of all four is. And the Six-Day War was not merely a unique war but a war in a unique conflict.
The wording of the resolution ignores the existence of a Palestinian national movement with real claims on the land, even while acknowledging their genuine historical grievance at the result of a previous war. And it ignores entirely that the very existence of Israel is at the center of the conflict of which the recent war was just one episode.
The standard model might work where the dispute is about land or resources or even holy sites and refugees. But when one side regards accepting the very existence of the other as an insufferable concession, any diplomatic process that makes overly ambitious demands (full peace instead of a truce) with no clear benchmarks (territorial compromises to be negotiated by all parties) among competing belligerents with vastly different interests is doomed to fail. When it leaves no room for any party or combination of parties to alter a status quo in any meaningful way by the adoption of half-measures, it has the inevitable result of cementing a reality of semi-permanent occupation.
The semi-permanent occupation has been reasonably tolerable for the Arab states that lost the war, allowing them to pursue their own means for disengaging from a conflict they had no hope of winning. But it has been a catastrophe for the Israelis and Palestinians themselves, who still find their very national existence questioned and threatened in a way nations in other conflicts, even bitter conflicts, do not.