Carter’s Interpretation of UN Resolution 242 Strains Relationship with Begin

June 3, 1977

In May 1977, President Jimmy Carter had just returned from a meeting with President Assad of Syria. He sought common ground to move Arab-Israeli negotiations forward.  On June 3, Zgibniew Brzezinski, his National Security Adviser, wrote a memorandum redefining the Carter administration’s position on resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict.  Brzezinski was very specific about UN Resolution 242, a resolution whose passage had been protracted and had yielded a deliberately vague compromise.  UN Resolution 242 was passed in the days following the 1967 war, when Israel captured East Jerusalem and territories in the West Bank from Jordan, Sinai from Egypt, and the Golan Heights from Syria.  242 calls for “withdrawal of Israel armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict.” Negotiations over the language of the resolution had specifically stricken the phrase “all territories.” UN Resolution 242 also calls for “a just settlement of the refugee problem,” without any indication of what this settlement might entail.

Brzezinski’s memo stated that

We favor a comprehensive approach to peace based on full normalization of relations, withdrawal and security arrangements, and a homeland for the Palestinians… Our policy is consistent with the framework provided by those UN Resolutions, but where those resolutions are imprecise on peace, withdrawal and the Palestinians, we have tried to be more specific. Although the UN Resolutions say nothing about open borders, trade, and diplomatic recognition, I believe that we have added a useful dimension to the diplomatic process by identifying these as necessary elements of peace. In the same fashion, by referring to a Palestinian homeland and compensation, we have elaborated upon Resolution 242 which merely calls for a “just settlement of the refugee problem.” But we should be careful not to imply that those countries that have supported Resolutions 242 and 338 have also endorsed the more specific ideas that we have been exploring in the past several months.  (FRUS, 1977-1978, Memorandum From the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs to President Carter, Washington, June 3, 1977)

Following the memo, Carter and Brzezinski continued to advocate for a “Palestinian homeland,” a position Carter made public in March.  Carter’s team became focused on Palestinian self-determination and refugee compensation.

Predictably, the newly elected government of Israeli Prime Minister Menahem Begin was irritated.  Begin felt that the West Bank was part of the land of Israel and not open to withdrawal or application of foreign sovereignty over it. The Carter administration had not anticipated that Begin would be elected nor did they understand his ideological commitment to these territories, particularly the West Bank.

Differences remained between Begin and Carter during Begin’s visit to Washington in July 1977, making Carter Begin’s adversary until Reagan took office in 1981, thus straining the US-Israeli relationship.

The photo shows Prime Minister Menachem Begin (left) and National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski (right) playing a game of chess during the negotiations at Camp David in September 1978.