The Munich Agreement: Lessons for the Future


I’m going to speak about the appeasement in our time. There’s plenty of stuff to speak about, unfortunately. So I’ll focus here in the Middle East. Now, what is the idea of appeasement in our time? And I think this is the common denominator with what happened 80 years ago. Appeasement is the idea that if you make concessions to aggression, then you might convince the aggressor that he should stop his aggression. That’s the idea. And by that, you can do that by even giving up vital interests of a third party without consulting him. Or even if you consult him, ignoring the answers you get from him. Friends—you’re from the Czech Republic—know that in the discussions before Munich (this was not mentioned here), the representatives of Czechoslovakia at the time were in the room, but they were not given permission to speak. And they were forced to actually accept the decisions made on their account.

This is important for us as Israelis because much of the appeasement that is going in the Middle East is at our expense. Now we believe that we are strong, that we can defend ourselves. That’s wonderful. And we can, but in crucial matters, our interests are compromised by people we believe that we can trust. And this was the case just recently in two extremely important issues. First and foremost, on the JCPOA. Our vital interest is to prevent Iran from having the capability to produce the nuclear weapon. This is our vital interest. We know exactly what the Iranians want. Yet all our friends in the Western world join hands in providing an agreement that paves the road to the Iranians, not only have a nuclear weapon but to have a wide, big arsenal of nuclear weapons. Ignoring our advice. I was in this room in the negotiations. We gave all kinds of advice. How you can prevent Iran from having a nuclear weapon, let alone preventing Iran from having a capability to produce a nuclear weapon. Nevertheless, all our advice was ignored. Most of it was ignored. And President Obama, when he presented the deal, said “if I were a friend of Israel, I can understand the friends of Israel when they come and criticize this deal, but I have to look at the wider perspective and I tell you it’s a good deal.” This was a terrible deal, and it was basically throwing Israel under the bus. And, fortunately, now it is changed but there was no guarantee at the time that this was going to change.

Same happened in something that is less spoken about, but not less dangerous, and this is Resolution 2334 of the Security Council that was given approval to pass by the American administration days before the Obama administration left office. This was again of vital interest to Israel, to make sure that its claim for Jerusalem, for example, and even for the rest of the territories, the West Bank, is at least accepted by the United States. We didn’t have much expectations from others. And yet the Americans were ready to allow the passage of a resolution that says that Jerusalem is Palestinian occupied territory. It’s unbelievable. It’s a vital interest of Israel. And yet it was compromised, again, without really consulting us, without giving us any ability to prevent this from happening. And just like with Czechoslovakia, this was presented as a deal to save Czechoslovakia. This again was done by people who call themselves our friends. And they really believe that they’re our friends.

This is something that we have to keep in mind, that the idea of appeasement has not passed. Now there was a debate here, and I want to refer to it. But maybe in some cases appeasement is the right thing to do. Maybe in some cases you can convince the aggressor by giving him some sort of concession to stop being an aggressor. And if this is the case, then we can avoid war because in most cases, when you go to situations of appeasement, the way to present the situation by the appeaser is to present you a situation where there’s two options, only two options. War, which as we heard is something so terrible. Nobody wants war. Or appeasement. Now there are only two options.

In reality, there are of course many more options. A lot of things in between the two that you can choose. But it’s always presented like it’s either war or this. Either you give up the territories or you end with either a Jewish state or a democratic state. There’s nothing in between. So, you have to give up the territories because otherwise you’re not going to be either Jewish or democratic. No, there are so many other options. We are a Jewish, democratic state while we keep the current situation. It’s not always such a fork, such a terrible fork. But the basic situation is presented: either you go for the JCPOA or you have a war with Iran. So, you have to go to the JCPOA. It’s always presented as a fork, which is a totally wrong representation of the situation.

But then again when you have to deal with this situation, when is it logical to go for an appeasement and when is it illogical? It’s logical when the aggressor you’re dealing with is a pragmatic element, player, maybe even an enemy, who’s pragmatic. Then you can make all kinds of deals because pragmatism can lead to all kinds of solutions. But when the aggressor you’re dealing with is driven by deep ideological ideas, wants to govern the world like Hitler or whatever, or the Islamic radicals, they want to change the world order. They want a different world order. They’re ready to pay the price for that. Or the Palestinian narrative that calls for the destruction of the State of Israel, either in stages or in a shorter run.

You have to be extremely careful, and there’s no logic behind showing appeasement when you confront such kind of ideology. And this was the mistake of Munich. This is the lesson learned. Not that appeasement is wrong always. It’s that appeasement to somebody who has this kind of ideology is totally mistaken as extremely dangerous because they will interpret it as weakness and so on so forth. So, when you’re facing an enemy like that, that’s what you have to do. Now, how do we end up with all these appeasement situations again and again? Because we have to understand the way of decision-making in the West. And it was touched upon here and it does not change much. It’s based on a set of values and a set of interests. That’s what you take into account when you make a policy. Our set of values as Westerners is totally dominated by the high value given to life. We want to continue living as long as possible. It’s life, liberty, and the right to pursue happiness, right? Life is still the first value in our set of values. So, anything that puts our lives in danger, we want to avoid. If there is really this kind of situation of choosing between war and something else, choosing something else makes sense, because it doesn’t put our lives at risk. So, we prefer always anything that doesn’t put our lives in risk.

The mistake is, as I said before, that it’s not always war the other option of appeasement. There are so many others. Deterrence, for example, is a good idea. You can build deterrence, build it. You can get something by building this deterrence. And Jacques touched on some of the issues and some of the cases where we did build deterrence and how it worked right for us. The United States did it several times. Sometimes even war’s not that terrible, but if you can do something else of course. Two, is that we give a lot of importance in our set of values to peace, which is of course the opposite of war and so that we always tend to believe that if we don’t go to war we can reach peace. But in many, many cases peace is not achievable. But we have this craziness about peace, because in our values peace has a very high level. We take it from Christianity: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God.” In Judaism, we have bakesh shalom verodfehu. Shalom is extremely important. Everybody wants peace. We cannot understand, it’s very difficult for us to understand, that there are ideologies in which peace is not that important. We have a mirror imaging of our enemies, and we believe that they also want peace. No, the fact is that most of these people I’m talking about, the peace they are looking for does not include us. The peace they’re talking about does not include our existence, definitely not here. So, if we don’t take this into account, if we’re so overwhelmed by the idea of peace, “Let’s make peace!” “Peace now!” all these slogans, we lose the ability to really understand what are we facing, and we minimize the threats we face.

Now if the intelligence comes and says, “Listen, there’s a real danger here,” and so on so forth, what you usually do as a leader, you just ignore the intelligence. Rabin didn’t listen to the intelligence at all, he didn’t put the intelligence inside the system of the Oslo process. There was nothing of intelligence over there. They didn’t have any intelligence in the inner group that made Oslo. And Neriyah was not their intelligence officer. He was the Lebanese guy who knew something about Arabs, that could carry out all kinds of sensitive missions, and who was the political advisor. Or policy advisor, I would say, but not intelligence person. Intelligence was not involved. It was kept as a secret from the intelligence. Same in many, many other cases. That’s something that is repeating itself because what’s important for the leaders in these cases are their own set of values. They work according to their own set of values and interests, if they are relevant. In many cases, another value that is extremely important is that in Western religion, this new religion called Westernism, there’s a very deep sense of blame, self-blame, and that is directed towards these others. We vindicated the others. We have to pay a price for that. And this again makes us unable to see what they’re really trying to achieve.

The fifth issue here is that we lack, in our way of looking at the world, a clear view of what are our red lines. Obama gave a very nice presentation of what is, how unclear are those red lines. And so, we can settle with everything. We can give up this and that, and this and that. We can give up almost everything because we don’t have a line. So, we never know when we crossed it. And then when we realized that we came to an extremely poor situation, it’s really too late. We are already paying the price. When Faisal Husseini described the Oslo agreement as the Trojan Horse the Palestinians have built in order to infiltrate into Palestine and bring about the collapse of Israel altogether, it was late for us to understand it because it was already during the Second Intifada when the people came out of their holes already. But before that, we saw it: “Okay, so we’ll bring some more Palestinians, we’ll give them some more weapons, we’ll give this, we’ll give that.” We crossed a line on that and we crossed a line on this, the story that Jacques told us. And we ended up in a situation where the Palestinians have built the capability to launch a war of five years that cost us 1,000 people. Unprecedented. So, this war still goes on but some of the rules of the game have changed fortunately since then.

Sixth is that we lack, and this was presented here regarding Munich, how the leadership sometimes lack the belief in our own capabilities and in our own belief in the tzidkat haderech, as we say, the just cause, in the fact that we represent the just cause. When you don’t believe that you or your people represent the just cause, it’s very difficult to face the aggressor. And this is combined with the seventh element, which is the relativity of truth. What is truth, actually? There’s no such thing as truth. Everything is truth. So, if you don’t believe that you represent the just cause, and you believe that truth is… “He has his own truth, I have my truth. So maybe his truth is not less important than mine. So maybe he should have the Sudeten.” Makes sense. So, you end up in a very poor situation, because you’re always ready to compromise. This also goes to multiculturalism, if you don’t believe in your culture. It goes in the same direction. And I’m not saying we shouldn’t respect the culture of the others, but we shouldn’t lose respect for our own. That’s where the danger starts.

The last thing that I want to mention in this respect has to do with our attitude towards mistakes. We are never ready to admit mistakes. I mean, as leaders. Leaders will never admit that they made a mistake. Jacques’ stories about when Rabin learned what were Arafat’s understandings about Oslo, he said to himself and to Jacques, “Had I known that, I would never have signed the agreement in the first place.” But publicly, he went on with the agreement even though he knew already that it was a mistake. It’s a very interesting situation because we cannot admit mistakes. And in order avoid admitting mistakes, we do exactly what, I think it was, Melanie in the morning session was speaking about, that we give orders not to speak about the mistakes. It’s about things that prove that we were mistaken, and this is wilful blindness. We become wilfully blind. Everything around us tells us. Attacks are happening, buses are exploding, and we keep saying that, “Oh no, nothing”. Arafat speaks about hudaibiyah. Arafat speaks about jihad. “No, no, nothing is happening.” We already know that we made a mistake. We are not letting ourselves admit that we made a mistake.

And this is true, you know I have a long discussion now with Dan Shapiro, the former American ambassador here. And what he’s telling me is that, “You know what’s our mistake, as the Obama administration? Our mistake is that we presented the JCPOA in too rosy colors. We should’ve said, ‘Well it’s the best thing we could’ve got,’ which they did say in some cases. But instead telling the story how great the deal is, we should’ve stated, ‘Yeah well, it has many shortcomings, but when you sum it up it’s a good deal.’ Instead we were trying to say that it’s a perfect deal and this doesn’t stand because it’s not a perfect deal.”

And so he’s at least ready to say that there were some mistakes, but nobody from the Obama administration—the echo chamber until today—is trying to convince the world that this was the best thing ever happened to us, which is nothing farther from the truth. This affected us very deeply in the last 10 years—this attitude of avoiding admitting mistakes. And so, we are ignorant. We avoid the intelligence. We are naïve about the intentions of the others. And we are wilfully blind. All of these are causing us a lot of trouble. Now today for some reasons that are in a way awkward, but for some reasons, we are adopting a new policy. A new policy that is saying, “Okay, from now on we change our course altogether. We live according to the reality, we face the aggressors with strength, and we shall make policy based on the reality and not some sort of wishful thinking about the other. The wrong thinking about the other.” And the basic idea of that, in my mind, is not necessarily in our immediate court, but it affects us immensely. The basic idea here was that according to the appeasers in the West, or the appeasing policy—no real appeasers, people who believe in appeasing, this is not the case. But the policy of appeasement was based on the idea that in facing radical Islam or the Islamic world, our counterparts are those who are aggressors. We shall cooperate with the aggressors and appease them and this will solve our problems. Who are the aggressors? The aggressors are the radical Muslims, radical Islamists. These are the aggressors. The aggressors are the radical Islamists. They are the danger. So, what we should do? We should appease them. We shall speak to their representatives as they are representatives of the Islamic world entirely. And we should give them all kinds of goodies that will make them feel that they shouldn’t attack us.

Of course, we cannot make this kind of policy towards the ultra-radicals, like Daesh and ISIS and Al-Qaeda, but we should adopt this policy towards the two major groups of the radical Islamist representatives, which are the Muslim Brotherhood on the Sunni side and the reformist elements within the Iranian regime, namely Rouhani and Zarif. We should cooperate with these guys in order to convince the aggressors, because they believe in the same philosophy, the same ideology of changing the world order. But we should be nice to them and they will change course. They will be nice to us too. They will be satisfied. This doesn’t work. They want a different world. They are already ready to postpone the day in which the world is changed. But still they won’t change their goal. And this policy has changed. Ever since Trump came to power, his policy is totally different. He says, “No, we shall not appease these aggressors. We shall fight these aggressors, and we shall cooperate with the moderates.” What he considers as moderates now, we’ll consider as pragmatists, because they’re not really moderate. And that’s why he first went to Saudi Arabia, unlike Obama who went first to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and gave a speech in the university in Cairo addressing the Muslim Brotherhood. Trump came to Saudi Arabia, and this is the new policy, and it reflects everything that is happening in the Middle East. It’s a new attitude. No appeasement. We cooperate with those who are pragmatists, not the radicals. That’s why the JCPOA was cancelled, and that’s why a totally different approach was adopted towards Qatar. And that’s why there’s tension with Turkey. All those groups that represent the radical Muslims are now experiencing a different approach coming from the United States. This affects Israel, of course, a lot and enables Israel to adopt a new policy and of course it affects the Israeli-Palestinian conflict because of the new embassy here and so on so forth. This is the new situation we are facing and we’ll see this works better than appeasement, which gave us only trouble and suffering. Thank you very much.

About Brig.-Gen. (res.) Yossi Kuperwasser

Brig.-Gen. (res.) Yossi Kuperwasser is Director of the Project on Regional Middle East Developments at the Jerusalem Center. He was formerly Director General of the Israel Ministry of Strategic Affairs and head of the Research Division of IDF Military Intelligence.