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Copyright © 2019 The American Israel Public Affairs Committee

50 Years after UNSCR 242: Enduring Relevance, Abiding Controversy

Israel’s Foreign Minister Abba Eban (seated left, at table), British Ambassador to the U.N. Lord Caradon (seated center) and U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Arthur J. Goldberg (seated right), attending the UN Security Council meeting on June 7, 1967, during the Six-Day War. (Photo: U.N. photo by Teddy Chen)

Three major anniversaries occurred in November—but only two received robust attention. First, on Nov. 2, many observed the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, which pledged British support for the establishment of a Jewish national home in Palestine. And second, the 70th anniversary of the U.N. Partition Resolution, which called for the establishment of a Jewish state in the country, was observed on Nov. 29.

In between these two dates, the 50th anniversary of U.N. Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 242 went virtually unnoticed. Yet the resolution, which was unanimously adopted on Nov. 22, 1967, is worthy of remembrance as well. Officially accepted by Israel and its Arab neighbors, UNSCR 242 became the cornerstone of all subsequent diplomatic efforts to make peace between the parties. Further, the deliberate misinterpretation of the resolution by some detractors—in order to undermine Israel’s international standing—calls for setting the record straight.

The provisions were intended to establish “a just and lasting peace.”

UNSCR 242 was adopted five months after the astonishing Six-Day War, during which the Jewish state overcame an existential threat from encircling Arab armies to capture significant territory and reunify Israel’s historic capital, Jerusalem.

Accordingly, the resolution asserts that to establish “a just and lasting peace in the Middle East,” two principles are necessary: “(i) Withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict; and (ii) Termination of all claims or states of belligerency and respect for and acknowledgement 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.”

Also, the resolution “affirms further the necessity (a) For guaranteeing freedom of navigation through international waterways in the area; (b) For achieving a just settlement of the refugee problem; (c) For guaranteeing the territorial inviolability and political independence of every State in the area, through measures including the establishment of demilitarized zones.”

UNSCR 242 remains relevant.

In the fifty years since its adoption, UNSCR 242 has been cited in all subsequent Arab-Israeli agreements: the 1979 Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty; the 1994 Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty; and, the Israeli-Palestinian Oslo accords of 1993-1999. There is little doubt that future agreements will cite the resolution as well.

Moreover, all subsequent U.N. Security Council resolutions relevant to Arab-Israeli relations have cited the resolution. Even the widely criticized UNSCR 2334 of Dec. 23, 2016, which harshly criticized Israel and called on it to make unilateral concessions, found it necessary to cite the resolution.

Most recently, UNSCR 242 was relevant in President Trump’s Dec. 6 recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. In a New York Times letter to the editor on March 12, 1980, Arthur J. Goldberg—the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. at the time of the resolution’s adoption and one of its chief authors—wrote:

“Resolution 242 in no way refers to Jerusalem, and this omission was deliberate. I wanted to make clear that Jerusalem was a discrete matter, not linked to the West Bank. In a number of speeches at the U.N. in 1967, I repeatedly stated that the armistice lines fixed after 1948 were intended to be temporary. This, of course, was particularly true of Jerusalem. At no time in these many speeches did I refer to East Jerusalem as occupied territory.”

The resolution remains controversial.

The text of UNSCR 242 has been zealously studied, to include the absence or presence of words. Specifically, the resolution’s call for “withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict” has been twisted by Israel’s detractors to require withdrawal from the territories—i.e., from all the territories Israel captured in the defensive Six-Day War. Had that been true, Israel would have been in permanent, major non-compliance with the resolution for the past half-century.

To buttress this claim, these detractors cite the resolution’s French text, which calls for withdrawal from the territories (“des territoires”). But there are several flaws to this claim:

  • All the discussions leading to the resolution were held in English;

  • It was the English text that was voted on by the Security Council, and thus it is determinative;

  • Most important, both of the resolution’s chief drafters stated on several occasions that the omission of the word “the” was deliberate.

Five years later, Amb. Goldberg clarified:

Does Resolution 242…require the withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from all of the territories occupied by Israel during the 1967 war? The answer is no. In the resolution, the words ‘the’ and ‘all’ are omitted. Resolution 242 calls for the withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the 1967 conflict, without specifying the extent of the withdrawal. The resolution, therefore, neither commands nor prohibits total withdrawal.”

And according to British U.N. Ambassador Lord Caradon, the other chief author of the resolution:

“Much play has been made of the fact that we didn’t say ‘the’ territories or ‘all the’ territories. But that was deliberate. I myself knew very well the 1967 boundaries and if we had put in the ‘the’ or ‘all the’ that could only have meant that we wished to see the 1967 boundaries perpetuated in the form of a permanent frontier. This I was certainly not prepared to recommend.”

Israel’s detractors have also made much of a phrase in the resolution’s preamble “emphasizing the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war,” claiming that the resolution therefore requires an Israeli withdrawal from all the territories. Lord Caradon debunked this claim as well.

In an interview published in 1976, he was asked, “Would you say there is a contradiction between the part of the resolution that stresses the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war and that which calls for Israeli withdrawal from “occupied territories,” but not from “the occupied territories?” He answered:

“I defend the resolution as it stands. What it states, as you know, is first the general principle of inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war. That means that you can’t justify holding onto territory merely because you conquered it. We could have said: ‘well, you go back to the 1967 line.’ But I know the 1967 line, and it’s a rotten line…Had we said that you must go back to the 1967 line, which would have resulted if we had specified a retreat from all the occupied territories, we would have been wrong…So what we stated was the principle that you couldn’t hold territory because you conquered it, therefore there must be a withdrawal to…‘secure and recognized boundaries.’

“They can only be secure if they are recognized. The boundaries have to be agreed; it’s only when you get agreement that you get security.”

When President Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital on Dec. 6, he echoed this sentiment:

“We want an agreement that is a great deal for the Israelis and a great deal for the Palestinians. We are not taking a position of any final status issues including the specific boundaries of the Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem or the resolution of contested borders. Those questions are up to the parties involved. The United States remains deeply committed to helping facilitate a peace agreement that is acceptable to both sides. I intend to do everything in my power to help forge such an agreement.”


Israel has already fulfilled UNSCR 242’s key requirement—withdrawal from territories (again, not the territories) it seized during the Six-Day War of 1967. In 1979-1982 it withdrew from the entire Sinai Peninsula as part of its peace treaty with Egypt; in 1994 it resolved land disputes with Jordan to forge a peace treaty with the Hashemite Kingdom; and in 2005 it withdrew fully and unilaterally from the Gaza Strip. Israel has thus withdrawn from more than 90 percent of the territories it captured during the war. The fact that it still maintains partial control of the West Bank while offering to negotiate its future is no violation of UNSCR 242.

And Israel has been willing to withdraw from territory in the West Bank. All four Israeli prime ministers since the turn of the century—Ehud Barak, Ariel Sharon, Ehud Olmert and Benjamin Netanyahu—have declared their support for the two-state solution, which would require an Israeli withdrawal to make room for a Palestinian state.

Yet no Israeli government will agree to a West Bank withdrawal unless the Palestinians accept UNSCR 242’s main provision: “Termination of all claims or states of belligerency and respect for and acknowledgement of the sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence of every State in the area [i.e., Israel] and their right to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries free from threats or acts of force.”

Were Palestinian leadership to fully accept this provision, President Trump—or one of his successors—could finally succeed in helping facilitate a peace agreement that is acceptable to both sides.

Tags: Near East Report Near-East-Report