It is common in Israel today to hear the argument that the agreement signed in Geneva between P+1 and Iran is an alarming example of Western naiveté, or even worse, of the Western powers’ mistaken belief that peace is possible through negotiation with the radical regime in Tehran. The world should have learned its lesson, goes this line of reason, from the 1938 Munich Agreement when Western powers, led by British PM Neville Chamberlain, betrayed Czechoslovakia and signed a deal with Adolf Hitler.
The Israeli minister of Intelligence and strategic affairs Yuval Steinitz, for instance, has warned the West against repeating the mistakes of 1938; Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in his harsh reactions to Geneva, used an analogy about a shameful betrayal of a small country by the allies who capitulated to evil rather than facing it. Even Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, when talking about Geneva Agreement at the Globes economic conference in Tel Aviv, warned Israel “not to underestimate the threats of the enemy and overestimate allies’ promises” and mentioned the ghost of Munich. Last but not least, David Horovitz, the founding editor of this newspaper and one of my favorite journalists, while writing a touching article about his recent trip to Prague in search of his roots, built his article on three key topics: Iran, Nazi Germany, and the annihilation of the Jews.
While reading Horovitz’s article I decided that, for the sake of historical accuracy, somebody should finally challenge this misleading comparison between the Geneva Agreement and Munich. My purpose is not to analyze what was achieved in Geneva. A number of Israeli analysts, who evaluated the agreement objectively and not out of political interests, were able to find some positive elements in the interim agreement. For example Amos Yadlin, the former head of the IDF Military Intelligence Directorate, and hardly an “appeasnik,” called the Geneva Agreement ‘neither a historic agreement nor a historic failure.”
By contrast, the Munich Agreement was, without doubt, a historical failure par excellence. Britain, France and Italy accepted without much resistance Hitler’s demand that Czechoslovakia surrender the territory called Sudentenland with a high concentration of ethnic Germans. This territory became part of Germany, and as a result Czechoslovakia lost 25 percent of its historical land. Even more importantly, strategically it lost an extremely important territory. Nazi Germany, without a shot fired, got a highly sophisticated fortification system built by the Czechoslovak army, as well as prosperous Czechoslovak industry that became an important resource for the Nazi military machinery. Immediately after the Wehrmacht occupied the Sudetenland, the persecution and expulsion of Czechs, German anti-fascists and Jews started.
By signing the Munich Agreement, the Western power de facto agreed to the destruction of a small country in the middle of Europe. Without Sudetenland, Czechoslovakia became defenseless and economically weak. Soon after Munich Agreement, Poland and Hungary raised their own territorial demands, and as a consequence within months Czechoslovakia lost almost 5 million of its citizens.
There is a Czech saying that “the appetite increases with food.” It took Hitler only six months to break the Munich agreement and in March 1939 he personally marched to the Prague Castle. During that time the world realized that Winston Churchill was right what he told the House of Commons a few days after the Munich agreement was signed: “You were given a choice between dishonor and war. You chose dishonor, but you will have war.” But for Czechoslovakia, it was too late.
The Munich Agreement – in Czechoslovakia it is known as the Munich betrayal – became deeply rooted in the Czech psyche. European Western democracies, including their elites, were quick to “swallow” this disgraceful act, which led to the dismantling of the last democratic system in central Europe. Czechs have not forgotten that their allies chose to sacrifice their country rather than to clash with the powerful Nazi Germany. In the eyes of many Czechoslovak leaders as well as citizens, Munich contributed to the weakening of the Western democracies and paved the way for Soviet Russia to become the guarantor of pre-Munich borders in the post-war arrangement.
As a Czech I find it completely out of place to compare the Israeli situation after the Geneva Agreement with the Czechoslovak fate after Munich in 1938. Israel is the strongest military power in the Middle East and has proved many times in the past that it can defend itself – and that its security is not dependent on the willingness of others to act. The United States, with all doubts about the readiness of President Obama to strike Iran militarily, is deeply concerned about the Israel’s security. Among political leaders in Washington, Israel has many close friends who listen and understand the concerns raised by the Israeli politicians. If there is going to be a final agreement between Iran and the international community, Israel is in a strong position to influence it. This should be the main job for the Israeli leaders. Endlessly comparing Geneva to Munich can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.