The bar has been so lowered regarding President Obama’s support for Israel (and most other traditional American allies) that there was palpable relief in Democratic circles when the US administration vetoed a UN Security Council resolution last week that would have declared Israeli settlements “illegal,” to be followed inevitably by sanctions and the like. Nevertheless, even that high point of “support” for Israel (taken for granted in American diplomacy since the Reagan administration) was marred by an accompanying statement in which the American UN Representative apologized, in effect, for the veto, denouncing Israeli settlements in the heartland of Israel as “illegitimate” and as “undermining” the possibility of peace in the region.
Typical for the United Nations, the debate centered on Israel – on whether Jews can add a room to a home in Bet El – when seemingly weightier matters (oh, the riots sweeping the Arab world, involving the murder of thousands of civilians in several countries by government forces) have been completely ignored. The Security Council has not yet entertained any motion to denounce Libya, Iran, Bahrain et al for their repressive crackdowns. That is why UN actions and statements deserve no attention at all.
But what would induce the Obama administration to embrace the narrative of the Arab world, which places the Israel dispute at the center of all Mideast strife to deflect attention from its own corruption? Why would Obama believe that the Arab world can somehow be mollified, i.e., reach some accommodation with Israel that will ensure peace, stability and prosperity for all? To the extent that Obama has articulated a world view, it has been based on fantasy, wishful thinking and a reflexive antagonism to traditional American values. It might be incompetence, but it is not animus; the appeasement reflex generally follows from a particular world view and set of core values. Appeasers are often true believers and not simply naïve dreamers.
A recent book entitled “Munich 1938” by the historian David Faber probes the late 1930s mindset and actions of those who gave “appeasement” a bad name, in particular British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. Faber’s accounts are so richly detailed it is as if he were an eyewitness to the proceedings. He vividly describes rooms, views, menus, moods, and conversations – all drawn from diaries and records of the participants, both British and German – as well as the goals and objectives of the participants to the protracted negotiations. In short order – less than a year – the British abandoned Austria to Hitler (the Anschluss that the Austrian government had opposed, until it was deposed), the Sudetenland (a part of Czechoslovakia that abutted Germany and had a majority German-speaking population, and then Czechoslovakia itself. Chamberlain himself made three trips to Germany (the first time he had ever flown on a plane; he managed by drinking himself into a mild stupor) to appease Hitler, and each time he succumbed to ever greater demands.
What is less known or appreciated is that Chamberlain, rather than being the target of ridicule as he became later, was extolled by his peers with each succeeding trip – as a man of vision and peace, and a moral beacon to warmongers such as Churchill, his most bitter adversary. The media trumpeted: “One of the finest, most inspiring acts of all history… of course, some Jews…are furious.” The church, the media, and the society elites were all enthusiastically supportive even if it meant betraying an ally like Czechoslovakia. Chamberlain was a hero – although not to his own Foreign Office who mocked his naiveté and repeated travels. (A skeptical Foreign office ditty: “If at first you don’t concede, fly, fly again” – responding to Chamberlain’s own statement, “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.”)
There was opposition, but it was a distinct minority. Perhaps the bravest – although he was not outspoken at all – was Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden who resigned in protest even before the Anschluss was settled. Each summed up their respective opinions of policies, process and personalities in a very telling way. Chamberlain: “I fear the difference between Anthony and me is more fundamental than he realizes. At bottom he is really dead against making terms with the dictators.” Eden – “Neville believes that he is a man with a mission to come to terms with the dictators.” (Interestingly, the German Chief of Staff Ludwig Beck also resigned in protest of Hitler’s constant threats to invade Austria if he did not get his way.) Only Churchill and a handful of others were outraged, and bitingly critical of Chamberlain’s weaknesses – for which they were pilloried by the media and the public.
Hitler knew precisely how to take advantage of Chamberlain, who was desperate for peace, and he used threats of war, and repeated mobilizations, to wear down all his interlocutors. He was an evil master of psychological pressure, keeping negotiators waiting for hours and then greeting them warmly, or meeting them right away in full fury and contempt. Hitler would up the ante every time an agreement seemed near, pretending that Chamberlain had misunderstood, even once preventing Chamberlain from having an aide or interpreter present so the protocol would be based on Hitler’s (and his interpreter’s) recollection. Hitler also spiced the negotiations with mass rallies at which hundreds of thousands of Germans gathered in public squares to hear of the historic injustices done to Germany that he would rectify, and how the great German race could not abide having Germans disunited (hence, Anschluss) or living under foreign rule (hence, Sudetenland), thus demonstrating to the British the widespread public support for his policies. Hitler was alternately callous and unyielding, and then malleable. Hitler said to his commanders while planning the invasion, later aborted by surrender, of Austria : “I don’t want men of intelligence, I want men of brutality.” Later, Hitler’s minions told Chamberlain that Hitler did not want to have to bomb Prague into submission: “he hated the thought of little babies being killed by gas bombs.” Eerie, and sinister, in light of subsequent events – the murder of more than one million Jewish children in the Nazi Holocaust.
The final Hitler-Chamberlain meeting took place in Munich, and an agreement was signed on September 30, 1938, giving Germany the right to annex the Sudetenland within one week. Non-Germans would have to leave without compensation for their property. German troops had already amassed along the Czech-German border. In his mind, Chamberlain had saved Prague and Czechoslovakia’s independence: “I am sure that someday the Czechs will see that what we did was to save them for a happier future.” Upon his arrival back at 10 Downing Street, Chamberlain reluctantly said a few words (his wife pushed him) that would become his pathetic legacy, saying that he came back from Germany with “peace with honour. I believe it is peace for our time.” (Hitler had signed a side paper pledging that their agreement is “symbolic of the desire of our two peoples never to go to war with one another again.” Questioned by his aides, Hitler mocked it – saying that he was just giving the “nice old gentleman…my autograph as a souvenir.” )
After Munich, two ministers resigned from the British Cabinet, but Churchill was the most strident voice in opposition: “we have suffered a total and unmitigated defeat. All is over… Silent, mournful, abandoned, broken Czechoslovakia recedes into darkness. Hitler, instead of snatching his victuals from the table, has been content to have them served to him course by course.”
The Czechs had not even been allowed to participate in the negotiations over their fate, with Chamberlain lying in stating that there was no time to invite them; in reality, Hitler refused to participate if the Czechs were present. A motion in Parliament in support of Chamberlain’s efforts carried overwhelmingly, 366-144. The Western world was euphoric. The London Times editorialized: “No conqueror returning from a victory on the battlefield has come adorned with nobler laurels than Mr. Chamberlain from Munich yesterday.” FDR pronounced Chamberlain a “good man.” The overwhelming sensation, said Isaiah Berlin, was “shame and relief” – shame at abandoning democratic Czechoslovakia and relief at the avoidance of war. The ecstasy lasted only a few weeks, until the violence of Kristallnacht on November 9, 1938 pricked the illusory bubble of Hitler’s moderation.
Hitler perceived Chamberlain as a patsy, rendered spineless by Western decadence. In October 1938 – just a week after the agreement was trumpeted – Hitler told his cabinet “I shall not occupy Prague for six months or so. I can’t bring myself to do such a thing to the old fellow at the moment.” Five months later, Hitler invaded and conquered the rest of Czechoslovakia with little resistance. In August 1939, persuading his generals that neither Britain nor France would hasten to defend Poland if attacked, Hitler said: “Our enemies are small worms. I saw them at Munich.”
The Oslo process carried with it the same delusions and willful disregard of reality as did Munich, with one major difference. In September 1993, Israel’s Ambassador to the United States, Itamar Rabinovitch, came to Queens to try to enlist the support of the Jewish community for the peace process (at the forum, he was regrettably pelted with tomatoes and eggs – and in a shul, no less.) I recall that one questioner directly compared Israel’s concessions and Rabinovitch’s enthusiasm for them (he later wrote a book called “The Brink of Peace,” about Israel and Syria) to Chamberlain’s appeasement at Munich, a loaded comparison to be sure. No one objected to placing Arafat in the Hitler role. But I interjected that comparing Oslo to Munich, and by extension Yitzchak Rabin to Neville Chamberlain, was unfair – to Chamberlain. Chamberlain negotiated with Hitler over Czechoslovakia, someone else’s land; he didn’t surrender Scotland and agree to negotiate in the future over rights to London.
But the allure of appeasement will always exist, with peace just around the corner, if only… The good-hearted but naïve will always be exploited by the diabolical, clever evildoer. The wicked always have the advantage in the short term as they are unencumbered by morality, decency and the need for public support. But to be good-hearted and clear-headed are not incompatible. It requires the clear articulation of core values and non-negotiable principles, and a backbone capable of withstanding pressure from adversaries and rosy-eyed optimists alike. Israel has not fully recovered from the Oslo debacle, nor has it held accountable its perpetrators. Most importantly, Israel has not yet enunciated a coherent vision of its red-lines or its objectives, and as such remains subject to the whims of an American president whose view of the world is so fanciful, and whose concept of American interests so tenuous, that his statecraft is muddled and uncertain and his reliability as an ally in doubt.