As the Biden administration weighs its Mideast diplomatic options, it ought to avoid one major and dangerous historical mistake: adoption of the so-called “Everybody Knows” paradigm. This is the all-too-familiar “international consensus” position whereby Israel is expected to withdraw to pre-Six-Day War borders based on the June 4, 1967, lines (i.e., the 1949 armistice lines), with a few minor and equal swaps of land with the Palestinians.
This position ignores irreversible facts on the ground, contradicts Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s original vision for a settlement with the Palestinians, and would be politically unacceptable to any Israeli government of the foreseeable future.
Adoption of this paradigm would feed unrealistic Palestinian expectations, which is bound to vitiate future peace efforts. The same goes for the International Criminal Court’s new “criminal investigation” of Israel. While some American gestures towards the Palestinian Authority may be understood as an attempt to be rid of Trump’s shadow, abandoning the healthy logic underlying the 2020 “Peace to Prosperity” plan would do more harm than good.
Misreading of 242 in its historical context
Until the Trump administration team put forward an alternative framework, a common assumption among policy planners in Washington was that “everybody knows” what the outcome of an Israeli-Palestinian peace process must be. This is even more true in Europe, where the EKP (“Everybody Knows Paradigm”) acquired the force of a zealously guarded ideological orthodoxy. Essentially, the EKP rests upon a slightly modified Arab interpretation of U.N. Security Resolution 242 of November 1967.
However, this is a false reading of that famous formative text. It assumes that a total withdrawal to the June 4, 1967 lines—possibly with some minimal and equal land swaps—is mandated by the resolution, as if it were under Chapter 7 of the U.N. charter (Breaches of the Peace and Acts of Aggression). However, Resolution 242 is obviously, albeit not explicitly, under Chapter 6 (The Pacific Settlement of Disputes). It took more than five months after the Six-Day War for it to be finally endorsed, precisely because Arab and Soviet efforts to define that war as an act of Israeli aggression failed again and again, even in the General Assembly.
Moreover, the language of Resolution 242 clearly points in the direction of a territorial compromise. This is indicated by the well-known omission of the definite article regarding withdrawals (withdrawal from “territories,” not from “the territories”), and the reference to “secure and recognized borders.” The 1949 armistice lines are neither.
President George H. W. Bush—no blind supporter of Israeli positions—said as much at the opening session of the Madrid Conference in 1991. (During the Kuwait crisis, he explicitly argued that while the resolutions against Saddam’s aggression were under Chapter 7, Resolution 242 clearly was not).
When Israel undertook to negotiate with the PLO in the framework of the Oslo process, it was never Rabin’s intention to allow a return to the 1967 lines—not in the Jordan Valley and not elsewhere, and certainly not in Jerusalem. This point was made very forcefully when he presented that second stage of implementation to the Knesset in October 1995, which was Rabin’s last speech in Knesset before he was assassinated.
Nor did Ehud Barak agree to total withdrawal, or to the Arab interpretation of Resolution 242—not with Syria and not with the Palestinians. Even the so-called “Clinton Parameters,” presented in 2000 after the failure of the Camp David talks between Barak and Yasser Arafat left room for a “less-than-100 percent withdrawal” territorial outcome.
The same could be said about President George W. Bush’s exchange of letters with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on April 14, 2004. However, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice later did come close to enunciating a “100 percent with swaps” withdrawal paradigm, given the breathtaking sweep of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s willingness to offer concessions.
Alongside the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002, and fervent European espousal of these ideas, it gradually became a broadly held belief that a full withdrawal was the “minimal” Palestinian requirement for peace. (This, even though in 2000 Arafat and members of his team were willing to settle for 92 percent or so. Talks broke down over Jerusalem, not over the demand for total Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank).
In May 2011, President Obama publicly espoused the 100 percent withdrawal concept, leading to an unpleasant exchange in the White House between Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu. In doing so, Obama (and his Secretary of State John Kerry) doomed peace efforts to failure. And note, Israel nevertheless agreed in March 2013 to negotiate based on the American plan.
“Everybody knows”—except the Israeli voting public
Failure to advance peace based on the EKP is rooted in the firm opposition of most Israelis to a “solution” which would require relinquishing key strategic areas of the West Bank; forcibly uprooting hundreds of thousands of people from their homes in Judea and Samaria (Israel’s biblical homeland); carving up the living city of Jerusalem; and responding to Palestinian demands for the so-called “Right of Return.” Except for a very small minority on the extreme Zionist Jewish left (and obviously, most of the Israeli Arab community), such propositions are unacceptable to a broad consensus of Israeli public opinion, regardless of who wins future Israeli elections.
There also were objections on the Israeli right, and hard left, to the Trump administration’s “Peace to Prosperity” plan (“the Trump plan”). There are those who see no need to address any Palestinian concerns, and those who wish to see Palestinian demands met in full. However, the mainstream of Israeli opinion would accept major compromise with the Palestinians (if such were possible) based upon the spirit, if not the letter, of the Trump plan.
Specifically, Israelis would be willing to accept a two-state solution (or a so-called “state-minus” situation) with an emphasis on Palestinian demilitarization if key Israeli security interests were protected and the dislocation of settlers reduced to a minimum. But such an accommodation seems inconceivable, given that the Palestinians adamantly refuse to consider any Jewish minority in their midst.
In other words, reverting to the Obama language of 2011 would alienate the great majority of Israelis. While some measures designed to distance the Biden administration from the legacy of its predecessor may be understood by Israelis (for example, allowing a P.A. mission to reopen in Washington), a return to the failed American strategy and positions of 2013-2014 would not be. It again would cast a shadow over the mutually beneficial “special relationship” between the two countries. It would complicate further efforts to broaden the scope of the “Abraham Accords,” and above all, it simply will not work.
The fruitless efforts of the Obama administration over eight years did not bring with them even an iota of real progress towards peace. This should serve as an object lesson. Trying to put “daylight” (distance) between U.S. and Israeli positions leads only to frustration and failure.
Feeding unrealistic Palestinian expectations
This will continue to be so, because such positions create an altogether unrealistic anticipation on the Palestinian side of a solution imposed by the international community rather than a solution negotiated with Israel. As a result, the likelihood of P.A. leader Mahmoud Abbas or any Palestinian leader offering significant, practical concessions grows even dimmer when they expect an Israeli-American rift and international coercive measures. This is all the truer amid Fatah-Hamas tensions, Palestinian governmental dysfunction and corruption and the transitioning towards a post-Abbas era.
Such expectations are already being fed by the decision of the ICC prosecutor to launch an investigation into the possibility that war crimes have been committed in “Palestine.” The timeframe for this investigation is galling. In line with a previous UNHRC resolution, it limits the investigation to the period that begins a day after the abduction and murder by Hamas of three Israeli boys, so that this specific crime would not be covered.
But in the context of the broader debate, what truly matters is the geographical scope of “Palestine” as defined for the investigation—namely, all the territories beyond the June 4, 1967 lines, including parts of Jerusalem. When such a definition is dangled in front of them by an international institution, which Palestinian leaders will be bold enough to settle for less at the negotiating table?
The Biden administration should therefore look at its options very carefully before it leaps and adopts the EKP. Beyond the legal and historical merits of Israel’s case, there is also the simple but well-founded observation that it would be unwise, perhaps even dangerous, to feed Palestinian expectations that cannot be delivered on. To do so would inevitably make it impossible to implement practical steps towards peace in the foreseeable future and would ensure continuation of the conflict.
IDF Col. (res.) Dr. Lerman is vice president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies. Lerman was deputy director for foreign policy and international affairs at the National Security Council in the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office. He held senior posts in IDF Military Intelligence for more than 20 years and teaches in the Middle East Studies program at Shalem College in Jerusalem.
This article was first published by the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies.