In announcing his resignation from the post of British foreign secretary out of opposition to the war with Iraq, Robin Cook said: “I have heard it said Iraq has had not months but 12 years in which to complete disarmament, and that our patience is exhausted. Yet, it is more than 30 years since Resolution 242 called on Israel to withdraw from the occupied territories. We do not express the same impatience with the persistent refusal of Israel to comply.”
British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Cook’s successor as foreign secretary, Jack Straw, have made similar statements, alleging a “double standard” in the demand that Iraq adhere to United Nations Security Council resolutions, while being “quixotic,” as Straw put it, on the implementation of resolutions dealing with Israel.
Such assertions are nothing less than a distortion of Security Council resolutions dealing with Israel, particularly the most important one, Resolution 242. Let us recall the resolution’s background. In 1948 and 1956 Israel fought and won wars against its Arab neighbors. In each case Israel, under international pressure, pulled out of territory it had won, but in return received neither peace nor an end to the conflict.
Consequently, after Israel won its overwhelming victory in the 1967 Six-Day War, it was understood that now things had to be different. In adopting Resolution 242, the Security Council made clear that any future withdrawals from territory by Israel must be in the context of negotiations in which Israel’s Arab neighbors make peace, accept the Jewish state and agree to secure and recognized borders.
Therefore, unlike the Security Council resolutions related to Iraq, there is no unilateral obligation by Israel to withdraw. Indeed, the very reason that Resolution 242 was passed was because of the recognition that only balanced concessions by both sides could bring peace to the region. Egyptian President Anwar Sadat came to learn this truth after his country was defeated in 1973 following the surprise Yom Kippur attack on Israel. He understood that only a revolutionary change away from the Arab League’s 1967 Khartoum Declaration — which said no peace, no negotiations and no recognition — could bring about Israeli concessions. And so in 1977 he acted.
It then took another decade and a half before the Palestinians and Yasser Arafat, like Sadat, appeared to realize that they could gain concessions not by violence, not by rejection and not by boycott, but by a commitment to non-violent diplomacy based on recognition of Israel’s legitimacy.
Once again, following the true path of Resolution 242, Israel began a process of withdrawal — leaving Gaza and six of the most populous cities of the West Bank. Under Prime Minister Ehud Barak at Camp David, Israel offered a near total withdrawal from the territories in exchange for full peace and an end of conflict and of future claims.
However, it soon became clear that Arafat had not kept his commitment to the Oslo accords and to the spirit of Resolution 242. His goal was not reciprocity between the two sides, but to use the agreements as vehicles to retool violence and terrorism in order to obtain unilateral Israeli withdrawal without concessions and with the purpose of unending conflict.
The British leaders’ false reading of the Security Council resolutions on the Arab-Israeli conflict is insidious because it is undoubtedly a precedent for demands, after the war against Iraq, to implement Security Council resolutions that Israel has allegedly not obeyed. Unlike Saddam Hussein’s arrogance in the face of Security Council resolutions requiring his disarmament, Israel’s presence in the territories is not the cause of the problem; it is the result of Palestinian unwillingness to give Israel peace and security in exchange for territorial concessions and statehood.
Just as the U.N. failed to play a constructive role during the lead up to the Iraqi war, so too has the international body often been destructive with regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. However, Resolution 242 was the singular positive contribution of the U.N. toward achieving Arab-Israeli peace.
In the days ahead, some in the international community will try to undermine the concept of reciprocity that underlies 242 and that offers the only real hope for Israelis and Palestinians. The Robin Cooks and Jack Straws of the world must be rejected for their dangerous, one-sided reading of U.N. obligations which can only lead to ongoing conflict.
Abraham Foxman is national director of the Anti-Defamation League.