The Munich Agreement: Lessons for the Future

, September 5, 2018

The topic of this afternoon is what would be, what are the lessons to learn, from the Munich Agreement, and I have chosen to concentrate on our area in the Middle East. In fact, appeasement is opposed to standing firm, and when you say “appeasement,” in fact you are asking, you are adopting a policy that is sometimes interpreted differently by your rival. Either he feels that you are a weak guy, and this is why you just accepted his terms, or in fact he says, “Okay, this is the first step, and then the next steps are to come,” and then to just try to attack you. The second position, of course, is standing firm and whenever your rival moves, you just move against and in fact it either leads to a conflict or to deterrence. In any case, each of the choices that you make in this policy is clearer when you look backwards, and you understand what happened, and it’s never clear when you look forward. You don’t know. This is a fact of life, and when you live, and we live, in a tough neighborhood, like the neighborhood we have, appeasement is looked by the Arabs mostly as a weakness. Instead of deterring, it becomes, I would say, it becomes an option just to try to provoke Israel more, to provoke Israel and to see what are the limits of this provocation.

In this area, there are several examples to be given. I will begin with Iraq, for instance. Iraq under Saddam Hussein was a powerful nation, and Turkey and Iran had plans to divert waters from Iraq. They had, the Turks wanted to build. They had a scheme of building 22 dams in Anatolia, stopping the Euphrates and the Tigris, and the Iranians, through the Saravan and the other tributaries of the Tigris, wanted also to divert. Saddam Hussein just told the Turks, “If you build the Ataturk Dam, I will bomb it,” and the Turks stopped it. They stopped filling the dam until 2003, after the American invasion of Iraq. The weakness of the Iraqi government provoked, in fact, and gave Turkey and Iran the opportunity to fill the dams, the reservoirs in Turkey. It’s the Ilisu Dam – it’s 300 square kilometers of reservoir, and in Iran it’s a little bit different. But the fact is that today Iraq is suffering 50 percent less of water than it used to have in the past. In Basra itself, you have every day about 400 to 600 people who are hospitalized with dermatologic problems, with terrible diseases that are there, and there is no water in Iraq today.

The second example in the area is the attitude towards Bashar Assad. Bashar Assad, and let’s take Obama, Obama in the White House. Knowing that this tyrant has been killing his people, has been gassing his people, has been destroying his country, and you know, months after months you had scores of people dead. Today, maybe more than 600,000 people have been killed in the civil war in Syria. About 10 million people are either displaced or refugees.  In Lebanon, every fourth citizen is a Syrian. In Turkey, you have two and a half million refugees, and yet nobody is doing anything. Is this acceptable? Is this moral? No. Why nobody would move? Obama said at the last moment, he said, “Okay.” He was just strolling in the White House gardens and finally decided not to do anything, and he just forced Bashar Assad to disarm from his chemical weapons, which we know it was not true. In fact, today, Assad is still in power, much more powerful than in the past. He is seconded by the Russians and the Iranians and the militias, and in fact he is ruling Syria and in less than a month or even more, you will have a campaign, an all-out campaign, in Idlib, and this campaign would be catastrophic. Two and a half million people would have to flee, and you’d have thousands and thousands of people that would be killed under the bombing, the carpet bombing, of the Russians.

Now if you look at a closer range – we looked at Iraq, we looked at Syria, we’ll look at Israel. Israel and Hizbullah in Lebanon. In 2006, we have this incursion into Lebanon and we discovered that Hizbullah has labyrinths, has fortifications in south Lebanon, and then we withdraw. We withdraw because of intervention, international intervention, and we just sit down and look at the process of how Hizbullah is getting stronger and stronger, and we just wonder: How did Hizbullah get to the point where he has more than 100,000 rockets targeting Israel? How did Hizbullah transform the situation in south Lebanon into a fortified position? Then the next time, the next round with Hizbullah would be a dire one for Israel. How Israel is trying to stop the missiles from coming from Iran, and each day we learn about new methods that Iran has adopted, either with airplanes, civilian airplanes, landing in Beirut since in Damascus they’re under Israeli observation, and this process of not meeting Hizbullah and standing firm against Hizbullah because of internal and domestic reasons, I think, had brought a difficult position for Israel facing Hizbullah.

The same goes with Hamas. Hamas has been arming himself for the last 11 years, and Israel has accepted the fact because, I mean, it’s appeasement. It’s a policy of appeasement. We don’t want to wage a war. We don’t want our villages to be bombed. We had a political problem inside, so let’s sit there. Let’s accept the situation. So, we have a round, another round, and another round. It never finishes, and now that today the Egyptians have announced that there are no more contacts concerning the hostile, the so-called “Azram,” the so-called stopping of war, with the belligerence with Hamas.

As far as Iran, maybe Iran is the only target that Israel right now has taken as a tangible target. We have learned yesterday that Israel has struck in Syria more than 200 times, our air force, and we have targeted all the missiles and weapons that have been sent by Iran into the area. I believe that this is the way Israel has to be, I mean to behave vis-à-vis Iran. The problem with Iran is that if we remember, the Iran-Iraq war lasted for more than 10 years, and I don’t know if we have enough oxygen in our lungs in order to continue to fight the Iranians in Lebanon.

Finally, maybe, a last example of this appeasement versus standing firm is Shamir’s government during the first Gulf war. The fact that Israel did not respond or did not react to Iraqi bombing was interpreted by everybody as a very good choice and certainly has given Israel a lot of leverage in its international relations.  Basically, I believe that, as I said, we live in a tough neighborhood, and we have to deal with our neighbors the way they think and the way they behave.  Kuper told me yesterday about a seminar that was held in Bar-Ilan about the Oslo agreement and about the very sequence where Arafat comes the first time into the area, and in his car are hidden two most famous terrorists. It is up to the local commander, Yom Tov Samia, to decide, and he calls the prime minister. The prime minister says, “You are the one on the ground. You make your decisions,” instead of saying and telling Yom Tov Samia, “You tell this guy, I won’t say another word about it, to turn around and to go back from where he came and the next time he comes here, let him come clean.” This is the way we should have treated Arafat.

Unfortunately, it was not done because of political reasons, and in this reality, we are in a position where our decisions can influence our fate here. So, if you show weakness, if you show weakness, you will never have peace with the Arabs. The first occasion that they will feel that you’re weak, you’ll be just taken over, and this is why our policy has to decide basically on how we adapt ourselves, and in this stuff again, tough neighborhood, weakness is not the formula that we should accept, meaning appeasement. Thank you very much.

About Col. (ret.) Dr. Jacques Neriah

Col. (ret.) Dr. Jacques Neriah, a special analyst for the Middle East at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, was formerly Foreign Policy Advisor to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Deputy Head for Assessment of Israeli Military Intelligence.