Unfortunately, it’s very common in political discussions by pundits and commentators today to say “Israel must withdraw to the 1967 borders.” There’s only one problem with that analysis: there are no 1967 borders. The lines Israel inherited from the 1948 war are called armistice lines. They’re very different from international boundaries that exist elsewhere in the world.
First, they are based on an armistice agreement that was reached between the parties at the time. That armistice agreement itself clarifies that these are not final borders. These lines are more like military [cease-fire] lines that separated armies that had previously been in conflict. The armistice agreement between Israel and Jordan that affects the West Bank in fact states:
It is also recognized and that no provision of this Agreement shall in any way prejudice the rights, claims, and positions of either party hereto in the ultimate peace settlement of the Palestine question, the provisions of this Agreement being dictated exclusively by military considerations.
Military line, yes, international border, no.
There was even a statement made back in 1967 just before the outbreak of war by the Jordanian ambassador the United Nations in the UN Security Council in which he reminds his listeners that these are not international borders. The borders that exist are only military lines, and he goes over the language of the armistice agreement.
There’s a third reason why we can’t regard those pre-war lines as a final international border: We have to remember that in 1967 Israel was a victim of aggression. It was not the aggressor, because international law treats aggressors and defenders very differently.
Following the Six-Day War it is true that the Soviet Union tried to characterize Israel as the aggressor.
If the Soviets could prove Israel as the aggressor in 1967, then they would be in a strong position to make their demand for full Israeli withdrawal from the territories captured in the Six-Day War. But, as just noted, they failed and Israel became entitled to new defensible lines and there would be no return to the 1967 lines that was being demanded. Those pushing Israel back to the 1967 lines today want to wipe out the accomplishments of American, British, and Israeli diplomacy back in 1967, as well as destroying the legacy of Foreign Minister Abba Eban in the aftermath of the Six-Day War. They are in fact giving a belated victory to the Soviet Union even years after that country had fallen apart.
The Soviets went to the UN Security Council with their assertion Israel is the aggressor, and you know what happened? They lost. Then, the Soviets went to their home stadium, the UN General Assembly, and again tried to have the international community brand Israel as the aggressor. They failed.
The truth was vivid back then that Israel had acted in self-defense and engaged in a war of self-defense and couldn’t be forced to withdraw to the pre-war lines from which had been attacked. All this came together in November of 1967 when the UN Security Council discussed a resolution that would bridge the gap between the end of the war in June and the eventual emergence of peace. That resolution was called UN Security Council Resolution 242, and it was drafted mainly by the British ambassador at the time, Lord Caradon, and the U.S. ambassador at the time, Arthur Goldberg.
Resolution 242 did not call for an Israeli withdrawal to the pre-war lines. The Soviet Union sought in the language of 242 a full Israeli withdrawal from all the territories captured in the recent conflict. But both the British and the Americans resisted the Soviet language. In an interview that he gave in 1976, years after Resolution 242 had been adopted, British ambassador Lord Caradon made a remarkable admission that perhaps explains his approach, as well as the American approach back then. According to Lord Caradon,
We could have said: well, you go back to the 1967 line. But I know the 1967 line, and it’s a rotten line. You couldn’t have a worse line for a permanent international boundary. It’s where the troops happened to be on a certain night in 1948. It’s got no relation to the needs of the situation.
In short, according to Lord Caradon, an Israeli withdrawal to the 1949 armistice line would not produce a stable diplomatic solution. He was looking elsewhere.
In 1982, President Ronald Reagan unveiled his approach to Middle East peace-making when he spoke about the Reagan Plan.
Israel has a right to exist in peace behind secure and defensible borders. In the pre-1967 borders, Israel was barely 10 miles wide at its narrowest point. The bulk of Israel’s population lived within artillery range of hostile Arab armies. I am not about to ask Israel to live that way again.
Perhaps the most important assurance Israel received on this issue came from President George W. Bush. On April 14th 2004, President Bush wrote a letter to then-Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon in which he said Israel would not withdraw and be expected to withdraw to the 1949 armistice lines. He spoke about Israel having a right to “defensible borders” and made certain assurances about large Israeli population centers in the West Bank. This bold letter was also supported by both houses of the U.S. Congress.
The legacy of the diplomatic struggle that was unleashed by the 1967 Six-Day War is very clear: it is unfathomable today for most Israelis that this country would have to put itself back in the position of being as vulnerable as it was 50 years ago. One of the specific areas of the West Bank that Israelis see as critical for their security is the area of the Jordan Valley which has served as the front line of Israel’s defense.
Prime Minister Rabin who in 1993 fathered the Oslo agreements in two years later, in 1995, stated in his last Knesset speech that Israel would have to retain the Jordan Valley in the widest sense of that term.
Therefore, the vast majority of Israelis believe today that Israel has a legal right and a strategic need to retaining the Jordan Valley and achieving ultimately with changes in the pre-war lines a secure boundary that will be the greatest guarantor of a future Arab-Israeli peace.