The United States and the 1967 Lines: Background on a Contentious Issue in Israeli-Palestinian Peace Efforts

Aaron Jacob, Associate Director of International Affairs

May 22, 2011

In his remarks on the Middle East and North Africa (the “Winds of Change” speech) President Obama referred to the pursuit of peace between Israelis and Palestinians as “another cornerstone” in the American policy in the region. He said, inter alia:

The United States believes that negotiations should result in two states, with permanent Palestinian borders with Israel, Jordan, and Egypt, and permanent Israeli borders with Palestine. We believe the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states. The Palestinian people must have the right to govern themselves, and reach their full potential, in a sovereign and contiguous state.

The President’s remarks drew an immediate response fro m Jerusalem. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s office released a statement saying that during his forthcoming visit at the White House the Prime Minister

...expects to hear a reaffirmation from President Obama of U.S. commitments made to Israel in 2004, which were overwhelmingly supported by both Houses of Congress. Among other things those commitments relate to Israel not having to withdraw to the 1967 line which are both indefensible and which would leave major Israeli population centers in Judea and Samaria beyond those lines.

After his meeting with President Obama on May 20, the Prime Minster further said:

I think for there to be peace, the Palestinians will have to accept some basic realities. The first is that while Israel is prepared to make generous compromises for peace, it cannot go back to the 1967 lines—because these lines are indefensible; because they don't take into account certain changes that have taken place on the ground, demographic changes that have taken place over the last 44 years.

The President conceded that “Obviously there are some differences between us in the precise formulations and language, and that's going to happen between friends.” However, in his address before the AIPAC conference on May 22, the President tried to play down these differences, explaining that what he said in his speech was not a new American policy. He said:

Now, it was my reference to the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps that received the lion’s share of the attention. And since my position has been misrepresented several times, let me reaffirm what “1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps” means.

By definition, it means that the parties themselves – Israelis and Palestinians – will negotiate a border that is different than the one that existed on June 4, 1967. It is a well known formula to all who have worked on this issue for a generation. It allows the parties themselves to account for the changes that have taken place over the last forty-four years, including the new demographic realities on the ground and the needs of both sides. The ultimate goal is two states for two peoples. Israel as a Jewish state and the homeland for the Jewish people, and the state of Palestine as the homeland for the Palestinian people; each state enjoying self-determination, mutual recognition, and peace.

If there’s a controversy, then, it’s not based in substance. What I did on Thursday was to say publicly what has long been acknowledged privately.

After the President’s “Winds of Change” speech, The Washington Institute’s Robert Satloff argued that the President’s insistence that a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict needs to start with the 1967 lines “constitutes a major departure from a long-standing U.S. policy and a dire threat to Israel.” The New York Times editorial, on the other hand, said that “The [President’s] language was new, but it was not a major change in American policy.”

Did President Obama’s remarks constitute a major departure from previous American policy or did they reflect only a new language?

Historical Background

Historically, the U.S. backed Israel’s view that UN Security Council Resolution 242 of November 1967 does not require a full withdrawal to the 1949 Armistice Lines (the 1967 lines). Indeed, the resolution was co-authored by both the U.S. ambassador to the UN, Arthur Goldberg, and the British Ambassador Lord Caradon. This was specifically true of the withdrawal clause in the resolution, which called on Israeli armed forces to withdraw “from territories” not “from the territories,” as the Soviet Union had demanded. The exclusion of the definite article “the” was authorized by President Johnson, who rejected Soviet premier Alexei Kosygin’s pressure to include stricter additional language requiring a full Israel withdrawal. To be sure, Resolution 242 also emphasized the “inadmissibility of acquisition of territory by war.” Yet at the same time, it also affirmed the right of every state in the area to live within “secure and recognized boundaries.”

President Johnson’s insistence on upholding the territorial flexibility of 242 could be traced to a statement he made on June 19, 1967, in the immediate wake of the Six-Day War. In this statement, he declared that the old “truce lines” had been “fragile and violated,” and that what was needed were “recognized boundaries” that would provide “security against terror, destruction and war.”

Thirteen years later, in March 1980, the U.S. voted in favor of UN Security Council Resolution 465, which determined, inter alia, that:

...all measures taken by Israel to change the physical character, demographic composition, institutional structure or status of the Palestinian and other Arab territories occupied since 1967, including Jerusalem, or any part thereof, have no legal validity and that Israel’s policy and practices of settling parts of its population and new immigrants in those territories constitute a flagrant violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War and also constitute a serious obstruction to achieving a comprehensive, just and lasting peace in the Middle East…

Although the main focus of the resolution was Israel’s settlement policy, the provision that all measures taken by Israel in the occupied territories “have no legal validity” implied that those measures could not serve as a basis for territorial claims in the future. (Contrary to the concept stipulated in President’s George W. Bush letter to Prime Minister Sharon 24 years later that the final status agreement between Israel and the Palestinians should reflect the “new realities on the ground.”). However, the Carter administration later explained that it had intended to abstain in the vote and that its support for the resolution was due to a “breakdown in communication” between the White House and the U.S. mission to the UN.

On September 1, 1982, President Reagan, in an address that came to be known as the “Reagan Plan,” stated: “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.” Secretary of State George Shultz was even more explicit in a 1988 address: “Israel will never negotiate from or return to the 1967 borders.”

In 1997, in a letter to Prime Minister Netanyahu, Secretary of State Warren Christopher wrote: “I would like to reiterate our position that Israel is entitled to secure and defensible borders which should be directly negotiated and agreed with its neighbors.”

Clinton’s Parameters and Bush’s Commitments

About three weeks before he completed his second term in January 2001, President Clinton presented his own plan for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

According to the plan, Israel would have retained the main settlement blocs in exchange for a “land swaps,” by which Israel would concede territory it held before the 1967 war in return for any new West Bank land. The “land swap” was not required by Resolution 242, but was an Israeli concession at the 2000 Camp David Summit that Clinton embraced. However, the Clinton parameters did not explicitly mention the 1967 borders and were officially withdrawn before he left office. After George W. Bush came into office, U.S. officials informed the newly elected Sharon government that it would not be bound by proposals made the Barak team at Camp David, which became the basis for the Clinton proposals.

In a letter dated April 14, 2004, President Bush wrote to Prime Minster Sharon that he remained committed to his “vision of two states living side by side in peace and security as the key to peace, and to the roadmap as the route to get there.” The President further stated:

As part of a final peace settlement, Israel must have secure and recognized borders, which should emerge from negotiations between the parties in accordance with UNSC Resolutions 242 and 338. In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli populations 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, and all previous efforts to negotiate a two-state solution have reached the same conclusion. It is realistic to expect that any final status agreement will only be achieved on the basis of mutually agreed changes that reflect these realities.

While the letter did not commit to any specific boundaries, it clearly alluded to the parameters of the Clinton proposals of 2000, which stipulated that Israel will retain the main blocs of Jewish settlements while settlers inhabiting the core areas of the West Bank would be pulled back and resettled in these blocs or inside Israel within the 1967 lines. The Bush letter did not mention “land swaps,” as suggested by Clinton, but instead stated that any final status agreement should be based on “mutually agreed changes that reflect these realities.”

Concluding Remarks

Like all his predecessors since 1967, President Obama reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to the principle of “secure and recognized borders.” But he was the first President to state, explicitly rather than implicitly, that these borders should be based on the 1967 lines.

However, in his remarks at the AIPAC conference President Obama argued that in his “Winds of Change” speech he said “publicly what has long been acknowledged privately.” He explained that what he had proposed “means that the parties themselves – Israelis and Palestinians – will negotiate a border that is different than the one that existed on June 4, 1967.” “It is a well known formula to all who have worked on this issue for a generation. It allows the parties themselves to account for the changes that have taken place over the last forty-four years, including the new demographic realities on the ground and the needs of both sides,” he said.

The concept of “mutually agreed swaps” was used previously by President Clinton, but the Clinton proposals have never become an official U.S. policy. He himself said they would not be binding on his successor when he would leave office in January 2001. Indeed, his proposals were taken off the table as soon as the President ended his term in the White House.

Clinton’s and Obama’s language—“mutually agreed swaps”—implies swaps of land in Israel within the 1967 boundaries in exchange for land (settlement blocs) in the West Bank. The term used by Bush—“mutually agreed changes”—does not necessarily entail land swaps; it could imply, though the Palestinians will certainly oppose such an interpretation, only the retention of certain parts of the West Bank by Israel, based on a mutual Israeli-Palestinian agreement.

Aaron Jacob, Associate Director of International Affairs
May 22, 2011