It’s no secret that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas plans to lobby the U.N. General Assembly this September for a resolution that will predetermine the results of any Israeli-Palestinian negotiations on borders. He made clear in a New York Times op-ed this week that he will insist that member states recognize a Palestinian state on 1967 lines, meaning Israel’s boundaries before the Six Day War.
Unfortunately, even President Barack Obama appears to have been influenced by this thinking. He asserted in a speech Thursday that Israel’s future borders with a Palestinian state “should be based on the 1967 lines,” a position he tried to offset by offering “mutually agreed land swaps.” Mr. Abbas has said many times that any land swaps would be minuscule.
Remember that before the Six Day War, those lines in the West Bank only demarcated where five Arab armies were halted in their invasion of the nascent state of Israel 19 years earlier. Legally, they formed only an armistice line, not a recognized international border. No Palestinian state ever existed that could have claimed these prewar lines. Jordan occupied the West Bank after the Arab invasion, but its claim to sovereignty was not recognized by any U.N. members except Pakistan and the U.K. As Jordan’s U.N. ambassador said before the war, the old armistice lines “did not fix boundaries.” Thus the central thrust of Arab-Israeli diplomacy for more than 40 years was that Israel must negotiate an agreed border with its Arab neighbors.
The cornerstone of all postwar diplomacy was U.N. Security Council Resolution 242, passed in November 1967. It did not demand that Israel pull back completely to the pre-1967 lines. Its withdrawal clause only called on Israel to withdraw “from territories,” not from all territories. Britain’s foreign secretary at the time, George Brown, later underlined the distinction: “The proposal said ‘Israel will withdraw from territories that were occupied,’ and not from ‘the’ territories, which means that Israel will not withdraw from all the territories.”
Prior to the Six Day War, Jerusalem had been sliced in two, and the Jewish people were denied access to the Old City and its holy sites. Jerusalem’s Christian population also faced limitations. As America’s ambassador to the U.N., Arthur Goldberg, would explain, Resolution 242 did not preclude Israel’s reunification of Jerusalem. In fact, Resolution 242 became the only agreed basis of all Arab-Israeli peace agreements, from the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli Treaty of Peace to the 1993 Oslo Agreements between Israel and the Palestinians.
How were Israel’s legal rights to new boundaries justified? A good explanation came from Judge Stephen Schwebel, who would later be an adviser to the State Department and then president of the International Court of Justice in The Hague. Writing in the American Journal of International Law in 1970, he noted that Israel’s title to West Bank territory—in the event that it sought alterations in the pre-Six Day War lines—emanated from the fact that it had acted in lawful exercise of its right to self-defense. It was not the aggressor.
The flexibility for creating new borders was preserved for decades. Indeed, the 1993 Oslo Agreements, signed by Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn, did not stipulate that the final borders between Israel and the Palestinians would be the 1967 lines. Borders were to be a subject for future negotiations. An April 2004 U.S. letter to Israel, backed by a bipartisan consensus in both houses of Congress, stipulated that Israel was not expected to fully withdraw, but rather was entitled to “defensible borders.” U.S. secretaries of state from Henry Kissinger to Warren Christopher reiterated the same point in past letters of assurance.
If the borders between Israel and the Palestinians need to be negotiated, then what are the implications of a U.N. General Assembly resolution that states up front that those borders must be the 1967 lines? Some commentators assert that all Mr. Abbas wants to do is strengthen his hand in future negotiations with Israel, and that this does not contradict a negotiated peace. But is that really true? Why should Mr. Abbas ever negotiate with Israel if he can rely on the automatic majority of Third World countries at the U.N. General Assembly to back his positions on other points that are in dispute, like the future of Jerusalem, the refugee question, and security?
Mr. Abbas’s unilateral move at the U.N. represents a massive violation of a core commitment in the Oslo Agreements in which both Israelis and Palestinians undertook that “neither side shall initiate or take any step that will change the status of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip pending the outcome of Permanent Status negotiations.” Palestinian spokesmen counter that Israeli settlements violated this clause. Yet former Prime Minister Rabin was very specific while negotiating Oslo in preserving the rights of Israeli citizens to build their homes in these disputed areas, by insisting that the settlements would be one of the subjects of final status negotiations between the parties.
By turning to the U.N., Mr. Abbas wants to use the international community to change the legal status of the territories. Why should Israel rely on Mr. Abbas in the future after what is plainly a material breach of this core obligation?
The truth is that Mr. Abbas has chosen a unilateralist course instead of negotiations. For that reason he has no problem tying his fate to Hamas, the radical organization that is the antithesis of peace. Its infamous 1988 Charter calls for Israel’s complete destruction and sees Islam in an historic battle with the Jewish people. In 2006, Dr. Mahmoud al-Zahar, the Hamas leader who attended the recent Cairo reconciliation ceremony with Mr. Abbas’s Fatah movement, stated openly that Hamas was still committed to its 1988 Charter, noting, “the movement [would] not change a single word.” Hamas’s jihadist orientation was reconfirmed when Ismail Haniyeh, its prime minister in Gaza, condemned the U.S. for eliminating Osama bin Laden.
All Israeli prime ministers have spoken about negotiations as a vehicle for ending the Arab-Israeli conflict. There would be an end of claims. However, Mr. Abbas has now revealed his intention of using the U.N. for perpetuating the conflict. As he wrote this week: “Palestine’s admission to the United Nations would pave the way for the internationalization of the conflict as a legal matter, not only a political one.”
Mr. Abbas clearly is not prepared to make a historic compromise. By running to the U.N. and to Hamas, he is evading the hard choices he has to make, and he is leaving any resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict far more difficult for future generations.
Mr. Gold, a former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, is president of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.