The United States, the 1967 Lines, and the Future of the Arab-Israeli Conflict
After holding three elections in less than a year, Israelis appear to be finally getting a break from having to go to the polls. On April 20, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party agreed to form a unity government with the leader of the opposition Blue and White Party, Benny Gantz. As part of the deal that the two sides negotiated, Netanyahu will be allowed to let the Knesset — Israel’s parliament — hold a vote on whether Israel should unilaterally annex roughly 30 percent of the West Bank, hitherto considered the main area of land that would comprise a future Palestinian state, possibly as early as July.
There is good reason to believe that President Donald Trump would support an Israeli decision for annexation. Although Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s recent visit to Jerusalem prompted speculation that Washington might have qualms about such a move, Trump has repeatedly signaled that he backs Israel’s territorial aspirations. The administration, for example, has already recognized Israel’s authority over the Golan Heights and kept the president’s campaign promise to move the U.S. embassy in the country to Jerusalem. More importantly, under Trump the United States has indicated its approval for annexation by declaring that Israel’s West Bank settlements do not violate international law. And the peace plan that the administration issued in January explicitly outlined a territorial settlement that would involve Israel retaining about 30 percent of the West Bank — including its existing settlements and the Jordan River Valley — as well as authority over the whole of Jerusalem. Indeed, the Netanyahu-Gantz agreement specifically refers to the Trump proposal.
Annexation, in other words, now seems as likely as at any time since the June 1967 Arab-Israeli war, when, in just six days, Israel captured the Sinai Peninsula, the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, the Golan Heights, and East Jerusalem. It is, therefore, as important as ever to put into historical perspective how a decision by Trump to recognize an Israeli annexation of roughly a third of the West Bank would affect Washington’s traditional policy in this area. Such a move would, in fact, constitute a major shift in how the United States has dealt with Middle East peacemaking. Although various U.S. administrations have differed over some important details, every president since Lyndon Johnson has visualized an Arab-Israeli settlement on the basis of an Israeli withdrawal to close to the 1967 lines.
It is particularly important to understand how an American approval of annexation would alter the traditional U.S. approach to Arab-Israeli peacemaking because it could prove detrimental to Washington’s interests. To be sure, neither the transfer of the American embassy to Jerusalem nor Trump’s recognition of Israel’s control over the Golan Heights led to any sort of major backlash. The embassy move did not, however, necessarily close off the possibility that a future Palestinian state could have East Jerusalem as its capital, and it has been assumed for many years that, as part of a settlement, the United States would ultimately recognize at least the remainder of Jerusalem as Israel’s own capital. As for the issue of the Golan Heights, it no longer resonates in the Arab world as it once did. By contrast, the Palestinian question remains at the very heart of the Arab-Israeli dispute.
In purely strategic terms, the Americans do not have the same stake in Middle East peace as they did in past decades. Quite simply, the Arab-Israeli dispute might not have the same impact on Washington’s position in the Arab world as it once did. There was, after all, little reaction from the Arab world when Netanyahu first announced his annexation plan last September. There is, moreover, some evidence that suggests younger Arabs in countries like Saudi Arabia simply no longer relate to the Palestinian cause the way that older generations did. And there is some truth to the claim that Trump has merely recognized the reality that the concept of a two-state solution is now a dead letter.
U.S. interests in the Arab world, moreover, are arguably less significant than they were even just a decade ago. Although the United States has by no means achieved “energy independence,” the “shale revolution” has given Washington additional flexibility and made the country less vulnerable than it was, for example, during the days of the 1973-1974 Arab oil embargo. And compared to the days of the Cold War, when the Arab-Israeli dispute frequently led to large-scale wars — one of which took place after Israel had acquired nuclear weapons — and had the potential to drag the United States and the Soviet Union into a direct confrontation, the risk the conflict poses to international security has diminished considerably.
Nevertheless, there are some good reasons to question the idea that the United States can actively support Israeli annexation and pay no cost in power political terms. For starters, Jordan, a key U.S. (and Israeli) partner in the Middle East, could be destabilized because it has a large Palestinian population. In addition, violence could flare up in the West Bank — there are, in fact, already some signs of increasing tensions in the area — which could conceivably threaten the stability of the Palestinian Authority (PA). Moreover, PA President Mahmoud Abbas recently announced that he would end security cooperation with Israel.
Of arguably greater importance, the popular reactions to Israeli annexation in countries like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Jordan could complicate the administration’s strategy of trying to forge a regional bloc consisting of Israel and Washington’s Sunni Arab allies aimed at containing Iranian influence in the area. “The best way to effectively confront Iran,” a number of influential Israeli analysts believe, “is via a regional coalition of relatively moderate Sunni regimes … with tacit participation of Israel. But forming such a coalition is not possible unless a credible political process aimed at resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is underway; Arab people will not tolerate cooperation with Israel without it.” The relationship that Israel has built with the Sunni Arab states, Daniel Pipes agrees, “has been premised on the Arab governments de-emphasizing the Palestinian issue; nothing is more certain to make that issue come roaring back to life than the provocation of a unilateral Israeli annexation.” After all, it was scarcely a decade ago that Hassan Nasrallah, the secretary general of Hizballah, was “the most admired leader in the Arab world.” Likewise, even though countries like Saudi Arabia have now turned on Hamas, there is evidence that they have supported the group financially in the past and could, conceivably, do so again in the future. And depending on the consequences that Israeli annexation would have, even if the United States does not pay a major price in the immediate future, over the longer term its interests in the Middle East might be damaged considerably.
Resolution 242 and U.S. Policy Since 1967
With that in mind, how has the United States traditionally thought about the territorial dimension of an Arab-Israeli settlement? In the view of some analysts, Washington has for many years been willing to permit substantial alterations to the 1967 boundaries as part of an Arab-Israeli settlement, going all the way back to the Johnson administration. For example, Israel’s former ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, objected in strong terms to President Barack Obama’s May 2011 statement that “the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps.” Obama’s reference to the 1967 lines, Oren asserted, “depart[ed] from longstanding American policy, going back to 1967.” The president’s speech, Neill Lochery agreed, represented “a significant shift in U.S. policy.”
To a great extent, these claims rely on a particular understanding of how the Johnson administration interpreted U.N. Security Council Resolution 242, the famous document that was adopted in November 1967 establishing the principle that an Arab-Israeli settlement should be based on an exchange of land for peace. Resolution 242’s provisions on the territorial question are, by design, very vague. Specifically, the document calls merely for Israel to withdraw “from territories occupied in the recent conflict” rather than from “the territories” or “all of the territories,” and its reference to “the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war” is relegated to its non-binding preambular language.
But the Johnson administration’s support for Resolution 242 did not imply that it envisioned substantial boundary changes as part of a settlement. To be sure, Johnson’s ambassador to the United Nations, Arthur Goldberg — whom the president had put in charge of Arab-Israeli peacemaking after the June 1967 conflict and who cast the U.S. vote for Resolution 242 — had insisted that the resolution’s provisions on the territorial question be worded ambiguously.
Nevertheless, the Johnson administration took the position from the outset of the period that followed the 1967 conflict that a settlement would require essentially a complete Israeli withdrawal with only relatively small alterations to the prewar lines. Indeed, Goldberg had voted in July for a draft resolution that called for “Israel to withdraw all its forces from all the territories occupied by it as a result of the recent conflict.” Later that same month, the U.N. ambassador reached an agreement with Soviet representatives accepting “the principle that conquest of territory by war is inadmissible under the UN Charter, and consequently that the withdrawal by the parties to the conflict to the positions they had occupied before June 5, 1967 is expected.”
Goldberg later altered the U.S. stance on this issue by supporting Resolution 242’s more ambiguous language on the territorial question. In large part, he had taken that step due to domestic political considerations and because the Arab states had adopted the infamous “three noes” — no peace with, no recognition of, and no negotiations with Israel — at the Khartoum Arab summit in September. Goldberg had, however, also wanted to allow for the possibility of changes to the 1967 boundaries, which would need to be worked out in negotiations.
But Johnson administration officials had in mind only minor changes to the prewar lines. Goldberg, for instance, foresaw a settlement that would involve “the return to [Egypt] of all [Egyptian] territory occupied during the June war,” though he did not rule out the possibility that Israel could retain the Gaza Strip. To be sure, because Damascus adopted an essentially impossible position after the war, there were no negotiations over the Golan Heights, but the Israelis had initially informed U.S. officials that they were willing to offer “both Egypt and Syria complete withdrawal to international frontiers,” and it is therefore reasonable to conclude that the United States envisioned an agreement with Syria along those lines. Likewise, at Goldberg’s instruction, Jordan’s King Hussein was assured that the United States was “prepared to support a return of the West Bank to Jordan with minor boundary rectifications.” In other words, aside from minimal changes — and the special case of Jerusalem — top Johnson administration officials felt that the West Bank would have to go back to Jordan.
Importantly, this was Johnson’s view as well. “Israel,” the president said in a speech he delivered in September 1968, “must persuade its Arab neighbors and the world community that Israel has no expansionist designs on their territory.” The final borders of a settlement, he argued, “cannot and should not reflect the weight of conquest.”
Johnson’s immediate successors would make marginal changes to that policy, but the basic U.S. position that Israel, in exchange for peace, would have to return to the 1967 lines with only minor alterations has, until Trump, remained largely intact. President Richard Nixon, for example, at times expressed support for significant boundary changes — especially with respect to the Golan Heights — but after the October 1973 Middle East war, he indicated that a settlement would have to be based on a near-total Israeli withdrawal. Indeed, Nixon even told Syrian President Hafez al-Assad at one point that he supported a restoration of the 1967 lines. Likewise, President Gerald Ford’s secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, wrote in April 1975 that a comprehensive settlement would probably require Israel to “return essentially to 1967 borders, keeping open the possibility that changes of a minor nature might be negotiated.” The possibility that there could be major boundary adjustments as part of a peace agreement, he believed, was “based on an unfeasible premise.”
For his part, President Jimmy Carter took an even firmer position on the issue. A settlement, he wrote soon after taking office, had to involve “67 borders [with] minor adjustments.” The West Bank and Gaza Strip, he believed, should be joined with Jordan in a loose confederation to allow for the creation of a Palestinian homeland.
To be sure, American policy has evolved since Egyptian-Israeli peace was achieved in 1979, but it has, until Trump, adhered to the premise that a settlement should be based more or less on the 1967 lines. “In the pre-1967 borders,” President Ronald Reagan declared when he laid out his own plan for Middle East peace in September 1982, “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.” Even so, Reagan believed that peace was not “achievable on the basis of Israeli sovereignty or control over the West Bank and Gaza. … [W]e will not support annexation or permanent control by Israel.” “For Israel,” President George H.W. Bush’s secretary of state, James Baker, similarly said in May 1989, “now is the time to lay aside, once and for all, the unrealistic vision of a Greater Israel.” Likewise, the “parameters” that President Bill Clinton proposed at the end of his term in office called for the establishment of a Palestinian state within the Gaza Strip and the bulk of the West Bank. And while President George W. Bush pledged in an April 2004 letter to Israel’s prime minister, Ariel Sharon, that the United States could accept “mutually agreed changes” to the West Bank boundary, he had in mind only alterations that would allow Israel to retain the large settlements it had constructed near that border.
Obama, consequently, was extremely frustrated with the backlash that his May 2011 statement about the 1967 lines had generated. “This is as annoyed as I’ve been as president,” he reportedly said. The whole reaction, he believed, was “not on the level.” Given that what he had said was consistent with longstanding American policy, one can understand his vexation.
In short, a decision by the Trump administration to recognize Israel’s annexation of large parts of the West Bank would constitute a major break with how Washington has traditionally approached Middle East peacemaking. Thus, before the United States takes such a major step, U.S. officials should think very carefully about the possible implications. Indeed, even if the reaction in the Arab world is relatively restrained, the United States would be taking some real risks if it backed annexation. U.S. officials, after all, have long felt that it was very much in Israel’s own interest to reach a settlement with its Arab neighbors.
With that in mind, the biggest challenge that Israeli annexation could pose to U.S. interests as they have traditionally been defined might be to the security — and identity — of Israel itself. As David Makovsky has said, “If [Netanyahu] annexes the things he’s talking about, it’s over.” Because such a move would make it impossible to create a Palestinian state, it would “cripple Israel’s founding mission as a Jewish democratic state with equal rights for all.” It is rather unsurprising, then, that many Israeli national security officials oppose annexation. The result, in other words, might very well be some sort of one-state solution. That, of course, would be in the interest of neither Israel nor the United States.
Galen Jackson is an assistant professor of political science at Williams College. He is currently writing a book on the great-power diplomacy of the Arab-Israeli conflict between the June 1967 war and the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. He is also an associate editor of the Texas National Security Review.