By Seth Lipsky, October 10, 2001
“Palestinian terror got tremendous support and encouragement by the United
States – it reminds what happened to Czechoslovakia at the end of the
1930s. Then the world to prevent war — and it was not even for peace, it was
for preventing war — sacrificed one of the democracies. In order to prevent war,
or to postpone war, avoid war, and we know exactly what happened.”
That warning, by Ariel Sharon, was not uttered last week. And it was not
spoken in private.
It was issued early in 1989 in an interview with the Wall Street Journal,
which printed more than two million copies and circulated them all over the
world. Plenty of eyebrows were raised by the interview, which filled nearly a
page of the Journal and ran under the headline “The Soliloquy of Ariel Sharon.”
But the reference to Munich was not the source of the controversy.
On the contrary, at the time there was a good bit of sober agreement. The
problem, as Mr. Sharon articulated it, was not just external factors, though they
were serious, as America was just beginning its dialogue with — or, as many
saw it, capitulation to — the Palestine Liberation Organization.
It was doing so at a time of great military buildup in the Arab world.
What was more dangerous, Mr. Sharon asserted, was that the whiff of
appeasement was coming at a time when Israel itself was exhibiting signs of
The interview has long been remembered because so much of what Mr. Sharon
said came to pass. He had warned pointedly of the likely consequences of the
military buildup then being undertaken by the Iraqi strongman, Saddam Hussein
(the invasion of Kuwait followed a year and a half later). What brought the
interview to mind this week was the brouhaha that erupted over the prime
minister’s latest warning against any attempt to take Israel for granted or do
with her what an earlier generation of leaders did with the Czech democracy.
It was predictable that there would be no shortage of people jumping on the
premier for his latest remarks.
Thomas Friedman of the New York Times promptly piped up with a
column quoting President Nixon as telling Henry Kissinger that Golda Meir
“must trust” Nixon “completely,” which would have made her the first person
in history to do so.
“Attention, Mr. Sharon,” Gen. Friedman barked. “When we are fighting
for our freedom there is only one thing for Israel to say: How can we help?
That’s a choice bit of stentorianism, given how derisive Mr. Friedman and his
colleagues in the peace camp have been to those who have been arguing that
America’s basic position toward the only free democracy in the Middle East
should have been: How can we help?
Instead, Mr. Friedman egged on Secretary of State Madeleine Albright
and the other architects of the Clinton appeasement spent the 1990s trying to
pressure Israel to compromise with Mr. Arafat on the theory that he was a
worthy partner of the Jewish democracy and really did want peace. As he
supposedly proved at Oslo.
So let it be said that there are those of us who reckon that Mr. Sharon was, in
fact, helping America and President Bush by illuminating for all of us, again, the
moral of Munich. He did not do so out of the blue.
Within days of the Sept. 11 attack, senior State Department officials
began signaling that they wanted Israel’s national unity government to authorize
a meeting between its foreign minister, Shimon Peres, and Mr. Arafat. It also
came after an egregious intervention by the German foreign minister, Joschka
Fischer, the former radical activist who was a booster of Mr. Arafat during an
earlier time of terror.
It also followed the extraordinarily ill-timed leak of the State
Department’s willingness to see a Palestinian Arab state set up alongside Israel.
Mr. Sharon, moreover, has made this point so often over the years that one can
only suppose that those throwing a fit about it this time have other issues.
All in all, it’s not a bad time for the American leadership to be thinking about
the meaning of Munich. A central feature of the appeasement that reached its
climax there, after all, was that most of the figures who participated in it didn’t
believe they were committing acts of folly. It was only Edouard Daladier,
France’s premier, who seemed to glimpse reality; when, on his return to France,
he was greeted by cheering crowds, he uttered his famous aside, “The fools.”
The feature of the appeasers is that they were trying to please. Mr. Sharon
himself has often talked of that phenomenon — the danger of the desire to
please. Yet the Nazis had a way of upping the ante after each step the free
world would take to accommodate. It’s a technique the Arab enemies of Israel
have learned well.
Nor were the Czechs the problem. They, after all, were kept off to the side in
the diplomacy that decided their fate, just as Israel has been shunted off from a
public role in the coalition that is going to fight our common enemy.
An excruciating glimpse of the Czech spirit is provided in William Shirer’s
The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. He quotes John Wheeler-Bennet’s
description of the eruption of joy and relief that engulfed the Mother of
Parliaments when Chamberlain reported that he had just received an invitation
to meet with Hitler, Mussolini and Daladier.
Jan Masaryk, the Czech minister in London and son of the founder of the
Czechoslovak Republic, was actually looking on from the diplomatic gallery and
was said to be unable to believe his eyes. He reportedly called on the prime
minister later to ask whether his country, which would have to make the
sacrifices, would be invited to Munich. They said it would not, for Hitler
wouldn’t stand for it.
The account quoted by Mr. Shirer has it that Masaryk looked at
Chamberlain and the foreign secretary and struggled to keep control of himself.
“If you have sacrificed my nation to preserve the peace of the world,” he
finally said, “I will be the first to applaud you. But if not, gentlemen, God help
Masaryk was making neither a personal nor political threat. He was making the
point that they were playing with the fate of nations and they had to be right.
They were, of course, wrong, and their reputations were doomed for all
President Bush could have reacted otherwise than by sending out his
spokesman to dismiss Mr. Sharon’s concerns as “unacceptable.” He could have
sent him a note saying that he came into office speaking of the need for
America’s leaders to comport themselves with humility and that he’s been
giving a good bit of thought as to how to avoid making the errors that Messrs.
Chamberlain and Daladier made in an earlier era.