Robert Fisk’s World: One missing word sowed the seeds of catastrophe

No one in 1967 thought the Arab-Israeli conflict would still be in progress 41 years later

Share
Related Topics

A nit-picker this week. And given the fact that we're all remembering human rights, the Palestinians come to mind since they have precious few of them, and the Israelis because they have the luxury of a lot of them.

And Lord Blair, since he'll be communing with God next week, might also reflect that he still – to his shame – hasn't visited Gaza. But the nit-picking has got to be our old friend United Nations Security Council Resolution 242. This, you'll recall, was supposed to be the resolution that would guide all future peace efforts in the Middle East; Oslo was supposed to have been founded on it and all sorts of other processes and summits and road maps.

It was passed in November 1967, after Israel had occupied Gaza, the West Bank, East Jerusalem, the Sinai and Golan, and it emphasises "the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war" and calls for "withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict".

Readers who know the problem here will be joined by those who will immediately pick it up. The Israelis say that they are not required to withdraw from all the territories – because the word "all" is missing and since the definite article "the" is missing before the word "territories", its up to Israel to decide which bits of the occupied territories it gives up and which bits it keeps.

Hence Israel can say it gave up Sinai in accordance with 242 but is going to keep East Jerusalem and much of the West Bank for its settlers. Golan depends on negotiations with Syria. And Gaza? Well, 242 doesn't say anything about imprisoning one and a half million civilians because they voted for the wrong people. No one in 1967 dreamed that the Israeli-Arab conflict would still be in ferocious progress 41 years later. And as an Independent reader pointed out a couple of years ago, the Security Council clearly never intended the absence of a definite article to give Israel an excuse to stay in the West Bank. Alas, our reader was wrong.

I've been going back through my files on 242 and discovered a most elucidating paper by John McHugo, who was a visiting fellow at the Scottish Centre for International Law at Edinburgh University. He points out that pro-Israeli lawyers have been saying for some years that "Resolution 242 unanimously called for withdrawal from 'territories' rather than withdrawal from 'all the territories'. Its choice of words was deliberate... they signify that withdrawal if required from some but not all the territories".

McHugo is, so far as I know, the only man to re-examine the actual UN debates on 242 and they make very unhappy reading. The French and Spanish versions of the text actually use the definite article. But the Brits – apparently following a bit of strong-arm tactics from the Americans – did not use "the". Lord Caradon, our man at the UN, insisted on putting in the phrase about the "inadmissability of the acquisition of territory by war" in order to stop the Israelis claiming that they could cherry-pick which lands to return and which to hand on to. Britain accepted Jordan's rule over the West Back – the PLO were still shunned as super-terrorists at the time – but it did no good. Abba Eban, Israel's man on the East River, did his best to persuade Caradon to delete both "the" and the bit about the inadmissability of territory through war. He won the first battle, but not the second.

That great American statesman George Ball was to recount how, when the Arabs negotiated over 242 in early November of 1967 – at the Waldorf Astoria (these guys knew how to pick the swankiest hotels for political betrayal) – the US ambassador to the UN, Arthur Goldberg, told King Hussein that America "could not guarantee that everything would be returned by Israel". The Arabs distrusted Goldberg because he was known to be pro-Zionist, but Hussein was much comforted when US Secretary of State Dean Rusk assured him in Washington that the US "did not approve of Israeli retention of the West Bank". Hussein was further encouraged when he met President Johnson who told him that Israeli withdrawal might take place in "six months". Goldberg further boosted his confidence. "Don't worry. They're on board," he said of the Israelis. Ho ho.

It's intriguing to note that several other nations at the UN were troubled by the absence of "the". The Indian delegate, for example, pointed out that the resolution referred to "all the territories – I repeat all the territories – occupied by Israel..." while the Soviet Union (which knew all about occupying other people's countries) stated that "we understand the decision to mean the withdrawal of Israeli forces from all, and we repeat, all territories belonging to Arab states and seized by Israel...". President Johnson rebuffed the Soviets and bluntly refused to put the word "all" in the resolution. Bulgaria, not surprisingly, said much the same as the Soviets. Brazil expressed reservations – rightly so – about "the clarity of the wording". The Argentinians "would have preferred a clearer text". In other words, the future tragedy was spotted at the time. But we did nothing. The Americans had stitched it up and the Brits went along with it. The Arabs were not happy but foolishly – and typically – relied on Caradon's assurances that "all" the territories was what 242 meant, even if it didn't say so. Israel still fought hard to get rid of the "inadmissability" bit, even when it had got "the" out.

Ye gods! Talk about sewing the seeds of future catastrophe. Well, Colin Powell, when he was George W Bush's secretary of state, gutlessly told US diplomats to call the West Bank "disputed" rather than "occupied" – which suited the Israelis just fine although, as McHugo pointed out, the Israelis might like to consider what would happen if the Arabs talked about those bits of Israel which were not included in the original UN partition plan as "disputed" as well. Besides, George W's infamous letter to Ariel Sharon, saying he could, in effect, keep large bits of the West Bank, set the seal on Johnson's deception.

McHugo mischievously adds that a mandatory warning in a city that says "dogs must be kept on the lead near ponds in the park" clearly means that "all" dogs and "all" ponds are intended. These days, of course, we use walls to keep dogs out. Palestinians, too.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Volunteer Trustee opportunities now available at The Society for Experimental Biology

Unpaid Voluntary Position : Reach Volunteering: Volunteer your expertise as Tr...

Early Years Educator

£68 - £73 per day + Competitive rates of pay based on experience: Randstad Edu...

Nursery Nurse

£69 - £73 per day + Competitive London rates of pay: Randstad Education Group:...

Primary KS1 NQTs required in Lambeth

£117 - £157 per day + Competitive London rates: Randstad Education Group: * Pr...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Residents of the Gravesham constituency are 10 times closer to what Peter Hain scorns as the “Westminster elite” than are those of Linlithgow and East Falkirk  

Will no one stop the march of localism?

Jonathan Meades
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam