Media Misreport on 1967 Ceasefire Lines

In a May 19 policy speech, President Barack Obama, referring to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, said the “1967 lines” should be the basis of a future border between Israel and Palestine. Major media organizations subsequently announced, wrongly, that Obama referenced “1967 borders.”

Diplomatic implications aside, President Obama correctly used the term “lines” to describe what was the frontier between Israel and the Jordanian-occupied West Bank between 1949 and 1967. But major media organizations, including some Jewish and Israeli sources, claimed he referenced “1967 borders.”

Obama actually said: “We believe the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states.”

But an Associated Press headline, typical of the widespread misreporting of the speech, inaccurately asserted that “Obama urges Israel to go back to 1967 borders.”

The difference between the two terms — borders and lines — is extremely significant.

The Green Line, to which the president was referring, served as an armistice demarcation line between Israel and Jordan. The armistice line was established April 3, 1949 by Article III of the Israel-Jordan Armistice Agreement and was never the “border” between Israel and the West Bank.

On the contrary, the agreement specifically notes that the lines are not borders: “The Armistice Demarcation Lines defined in articles V and VI of this Agreement are agreed upon by the Parties without prejudice to future territorial settlements or boundary lines or to claims of either Party relating thereto.”

In short, the word “border” implies legality, political significance and permanence that does not apply in this circumstance.

Lord Caradon, the British representative to the United Nations during the 1967 Six-Day War, made this very point when discussing UN Security Council Resolution 242, which calls for a peace agreement based on territorial concessions and recognition of countries’ right to exist in peace and security. Explaining the meaning behind Resolution 242, which he drafted, he noted that

It would have been wrong to demand that Israel return to its positions of 4 June 1967 because those positions were undesirable and artificial. After all, they were just the places the soldiers of each side happened to be the day the fighting stopped in 1948. They were just armistice lines. That’s why we didn’t demand that the Israelis return to them and I think we were right not to …

One article published in The New York Times avoided misleading references to 1967 borders, and instead used the appropriate term “lines.” (The language was commendably corrected from an earlier online version that used “borders.”) But even in that piece, reporter Ethan Bronner wrongly claimed:

Mr. Obama said that the solution should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed land swaps, meaning that if Israel, as expected, held onto some close-in settlements, it would have to yield an equal amount of land to the future state of Palestine from within its borders.

Bronner here replaces Obama’s actual language with the Palestinian negotiating position. Nowhere did the president say anything about “an equal amount of land.” Palestinians demand one-to-one land swaps, but Israeli negotiators have offered Palestinians some land within Israel in exchange for Israeli annexation of a larger area of West Bank land.

A separate story in the Times, by Helene Cooper, sloppily referred throughout to “1967 borders.” 
President Obama was accurate about the terminology, and there’s no reason why the media should accept less precise, misleading and inaccurate language. On the contrary, even if the president had opted instead to use an inaccurate term to describe the armistice lines, journalists would nonetheless have the responsibility to use accurately refer to the lines when speaking in their own voice.

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