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Why ‘Land For Peace’ Doesn’t Work


In the aftermath of the Six-Day War, Israelis were convinced that peace with the Arabs was finally at hand. That thinking was based on the notion that the war had proven Israel’s invincible presence in the region. If Israel was unbeatable, they reasoned, what choice would the Arabs have other than to make peace?

The Arabs, however, did not exactly adopt that line of thinking. Meeting in Khartoum on September 1, 1967, eight Arab heads of state adopted a resolution that was summed up as “the three no’s”: No peace with Israel. No recognition of Israel. No negotiations with Israel.

It was against this backdrop that the UN Security Council adopted controversial Resolution 242, which called for “Withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict.” In accepting the resolution, the Arab states let it be known that it meant Israel had to withdraw from all of the territories, while Israeli leaders insisted that since the word “all” was not present in the wording, Israel was, by accepting the resolution, only obliging itself to withdraw from some of the territories.

Both “all” and “some” are common English words. If the diplomats who passed the resolution wanted it to say “all,” it would have said “all of the territories” and if they wanted it to say “some,” it would have said “some of the territories.” In fact, the omission of the words in question was deliberate, as the diplomats endeavored to come up with a formula acceptable to both sides.

As each side continued to cling to its interpretation, the international media, always on the lookout for quick sound bites, concluded that what the UN was offering was a new panacea for the Middle East that could be neatly summed up as “land for peace.” That slogan may have been new, but the underlying principle had been around for a long, long time.

Throughout the course of history, wars between nations have been settled on the basis of land for peace. The U.S.-Mexican War, the Franco-Prussian War, the Spanish-American War, and both world wars are just a few of the many armed conflicts that were resolved in this manner.

In every case prior to 1967, however, it was the losing side that had to relinquish land in return for peace. Once the loser had been defeated on the battlefield, it feared the winner inflicting further damage. And so peace was seen as something the loser needed more than the winner, and giving up land was the price the loser had to pay.

Then, in the twentieth century, an additional dimension was added to this concept. In both world wars it was the aggressor nations – those that started a war – that ended up having to give up land for peace. Germany, Austria and Hungary, as well as the Ottoman Empire, all lost considerable land after the First World War, and Germany, Japan and Italy did likewise after the Second. And so land for peace came to be seen as something that happened not just because the winner won and the loser lost, but also as a means for punishing the aggressor.

Even in the aftermath of their huge military victory in 1967, Israelis were so desperate for peace that they did not stop to consider the implications of Resolution 242. Under international law a country has a right to keep any or all territory it captures fighting a war of self-defense. In accepting the notion that it should be the one to give up land for peace (regardless of whether 242 meant “all” or “some”), Israel unwittingly accepted the notion that it should be treated as both the loser and the aggressor.

When, years later, Egypt’s Anwar Sadat entered into negotiations with Israel for the return of the Sinai, he clung to the Arab interpretation of 242 and demanded all of it. Israel gave up towns and smaller communities along with infrastructure it had built and major oil fields it had discovered. Also just within Sinai was the site of Kadesh Barnea, said by many to mark the biblical boundary of the Land of Israel. Finally, all that was left was Taba, a tiny area of some 900 square meters just west of Eilat, where the Israelis had built a luxury hotel on a site where there had been nothing but sand before, save for an occasional Bedouin encampment. Israel claimed that Taba was on its side of the original 1906 international boundary that first delineated Sinai from the Negev, while Egypt claimed it was not.

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