In 1938, the leaders of Britain, France and Germany met in Munich to decide the fate of Czechoslovakia. Czechoslovakia was not invited. The three conferees agreed to strip the targeted nation of the Sudetenland, whose population consisted largely of ethnic Germans, and transfer that territory to German control. This deprived the victim state not simply of land but of those areas – mountainous, fortifiable – necessary for Czechoslovakia to be able to defend itself.
Today, the same three nations are doing the same vis-a-vis Israel. They are discarding UN Security Council Resolution 242, passed unanimously in the wake of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war and since then the cornerstone for all Middle East negotiations. They are ignoring the language of the resolution and the explicit declarations of its authors that Israel should not be forced to return to the pre-1967 armistice lines; that those lines left defense of the country too precarious and should be replaced by “secure and recognized boundaries” to be negotiated by Israel and its neighbors.
Lord Caradon, Britain’s ambassador to the UN at the time and the person who introduced Resolution 242 in the Security Council, told a Lebanese newspaper in 1974: “It would have been wrong to demand that Israel return to its positions of June 4, 1967, because those positions were undesirable and artificial. After all, they were just the places where the soldiers of each side happened to be on 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…”
Arthur Goldberg, the American UN ambassador, made much the same point, stating that the reference to “secure and recognized boundaries” intentionally pointed to the parties negotiating new lines entailing a less than complete Israeli withdrawal and that “Israel’s prior frontiers had proved notably insecure.” Lyndon Johnson, then President, declared Israel’s retreat to its former lines would be “not a prescription for peace but for renewed hostilities.” He advocated new “recognized boundaries” that would provide “security against terror, destruction, and war.”
Subsequent American presidents have reiterated Israel’s right to defensible borders.
The dangers for Israel of a return to the pre-1967 cease-fire lines are evident from even minimal consideration of the region’s topography. Such a withdrawal would not only reduce the nation to a width of nine miles at its center but would entail Israel’s handing over to people who continue to call for her ultimate dissolution control of hill country entirely dominating the coastal plane that is home to some 70% of Israel’s population.
It would also give potential hostile forces beyond the Jordan River untrammeled access to those heights.
This was what the drafters of Security Council Resolution 242 sought to preclude. And this is what the Munich Three now choose to ignore by calling upon the Quartet or the UN to abandon the emphasis on negotiations between the parties and to present a plan of its own based on Israeli retreat to the pre-1967 lines.
In the wake of the 1938 Munich agreement, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain declared, of course, that the parties had achieved “peace in our time.” But Britain and France also offered solemn promises that, should Germany unexpectedly violate the agreement and move against what remained of Czechoslovakia, they would come to the rump nation’s defense.
Less than six months after Munich, Hitler conquered the rest of Czechoslovakia. Britain and France did nothing.
Now we have Britain, France and Germany swearing their dedication to Israel’s security and well-being, even as they meet, with Israel uninvited, and seek to strip her of defensible borders, and even as they have, in fact, neither the will nor the capacity to help defend Israel from the existential threats to which they would subject her.
What they do have the capacity to do – adhere to their obligations under Resolution 242, support a division of the West Bank that would entail Israel retaining defensible borders while allowing the vast majority of Palestinians to pursue a separate political course – they refuse to do.
There are other things Britain, France and Germany could do to advance genuine peace. They could work for an end to the genocidal incitement against Israel, and Jews more generally, purveyed by both Hamas and Mahmoud Abbas’s Palestinian Authority. But instead they not only typically ignore Palestinian incitement but actually fund it, both in their individual contributions to the Palestinians and in their bankrolling of the Palestinians through the European Union. Some of these funds go directly to organs of anti-Israel and anti-Jewish incitement.
Germany could also curb its lucrative role in financing the Iranian regime, whose stated objective is Israel’s annihilation. But it has refused to do so.
In some respects the moral bankruptcy of today’s betrayal of Israel exceeds that of the betrayal of Czechoslovakia in 1938. Then, for example, Hitler vowed the Sudetenland would be his last territorial claim in Europe. There was at least this figleaf, however flimsy, for believing the Munich agreement might mean peace and rump Czechoslovakia might survive. In contrast, no Palestinian leader pretends an Israeli withdrawal to the pre-1967 lines would mean an end to Palestinian claims against Israel. All insist on a “right of return” to pre-1967 Israel for refugees of the 1947-48 war and their descendants; an objective that amounts to the dismantling of the Jewish state. And all Palestinian parties continue to indoctrinate their constituents, including their children, to believe Israel has no right to exist and to dedicate themselves to her destruction.
The United States has acted to postpone the planned April meeting of the Quartet, where the Munich Three were hoping to see the emphasis on bilateral, Israeli-Palestinian, negotiations, and on Security Council Resolution 242, formally abandoned in favor of an international plan based on Israeli retreat to the pre-1967 lines. But they may pursue the same objective at a future Quartet meeting. In addition, the Palestinians are threatening to seek UN recognition of a Palestinian state with borders defined by the pre-1967 boundaries, a course that likewise converges with the Munich Three’s agenda.
Churchill said of Chamberlain after Munich, “He was given a choice between war and dishonor. He chose dishonor and he will have war anyway.”
The Munich Three had a choice between adhering to the central international agreement regarding resolution of the conflict and pushing Abbas to resume negotiations on the basis of that agreement or betraying their international commitments, betraying Israel, and almost certainly subjecting the region to more war and carnage. To their dishonor, they have chosen the latter.
Kenneth Levin is a psychiatrist and historian and author of The Oslo Syndrome: Delusions of a People under Siege (Smith and Kraus Global, 2005; paperback 2006).