In praise of appeasement

Yonatan Touval November 2013
Op-eds / Israel and the Middle East

If the Israeli prime minister and his self-appointed advocates across the ocean took their historical analogies seriously, they would know that the surest recipe for war with Iran lies not in appeasement but in humiliation. After all, though Neville Chamberlain’s policy toward Nazi Germany proved fatefully ineffective, the real seeds for the rise of Nazi Germany and the eruption of World War II were sown not in Munich but in Versailles – in the humiliating terms the victorious powers imposed on Germany at the end of World War I.

In fact, the problem with Chamberlain’s policy toward Hitler was less the policy and far more Hitler. To argue otherwise may prove to be politically self-serving but is, and always has been, morally and logically specious: Morally because to place so much of the blame on Chamberlain is always to a certain extent to exonerate Hitler; and logically because the 1938 Munich debacle was never so much a case study of appeasement as of its failure.

To be sure, only time will tell whether the deal struck in Geneva will pave the way for a comprehensive agreement that will bring about greater stability for Israel and its Arab neighbors. But one thing is certain: Its success will largely ride on its ability to have provided the Iranians a measure of appeasement.

For Munich notwithstanding, appeasement can be a highly useful diplomatic tool – one that the players of power politics can wield to great strategic advantage. In fact, we all paid tribute to one of its greatest successes last week when we honored president Kennedy.

Although rarely recognized as such, Kennedy’s legacy is the appeasement he prudently employed in defusing the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Recognizing the risk that Khrushchev might well opt for a nuclear war rather than bow down to an American dictate, Kennedy secretly offered him a face-saving deal: In return for the removal of Soviet missiles from Cuba, the United States would remove its missiles stationed in Turkey.

It was a bold and pragmatic gesture, at the core of which lay a measured, strategic concession. Had the terms of the deal been made public at the time, Kennedy no doubt would have been finished off politically.

In the event, they saved the planet from nuclear catastrophe.

Unfortunately, not only has Binyamin Netanyahu been excoriating the emerging deal as appeasement, but he has been recklessly touting in its stead a politics of humiliation. As he put it in a speech before the Jewish Federations of North America the other week (and in a much-cited tweet the following day), the international sanctions regime “has brought Iran to its knees” – which is why, he went on to argue, Western powers should be able to extract from Iran a better deal than they just cut in Geneva.

This is a tragic mistake – and one that the Israeli leader should have learned not only from European history but also from Israel’s own. Simply put, Israel has never bought itself peace or security by humiliating its adversaries; the opposite is closer to the truth. The Arabs’ humiliation in the 1967 war should have rested that case forever. After all, it was only after Egypt and Syria could claim to have regained their honor in the Yom Kippur War of 1973 that they were ready to offer Israel real stability – whether in the form of a formal peace treaty (as with Egypt) or in four decades of a peaceful border (as, until recently, in Syria).

For this reason, Netanyahu’s demand that Iran completely dismantle its nuclear program is wrongheaded whichever way we look at it. First, because the Iranians will never acquiesce to it; and second, because even if they did, the deal would amount to such a shameful national surrender that it could boomerang in various ways. A humiliating deal would exacerbate Iranian grievances against the West and embolden hardliners to oust President Rouhani and his relatively pragmatic coalition from power. A humiliating deal is one that Iran would more likely violate or possibly even abrogate. It is a deal that would set the stage for Iran to seek to reclaim its lost honor and pave the way for the very war that the deal was designed to preempt.

Only a measure of appeasement will give Iran a way out – and the world at large the prospects of a diplomatic triumph. Branding the deal as appeasement, therefore, is not only to fail to condemn it, but it is to hail it for the bold pragmatism that is necessary for diplomacy to win the day.

(originally published in the Jerusalem Post)

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