President Bush's speech before the Israeli Kenesset on the occasion of Israel's 60th anniversary compared those who would hold talks with dangerous enemies in our own day to the appeasers of the Nazis before World War II. What was otherwise a nice rhetorical moment for the President, with some moving reflections on Israeli history raises some deeply troubling issues.
A New York Times editorial makes a good point: Bush almost certainly knew that the Israelis would, just days later, open talks with Syria (and of course, Israel is indirectly speaking with Hamas through Egypt). If he did in fact know about the Israeli-Syrian plans (and it is hard to believe, but possible, that he did not), that would mean that he stood before those responsible for Israel's fate and who bear its history, and lectured them about the Holocaust. Certainly the Holocaust is a tragedy about which every human being, Jewish or not, is free to try to understand, dissect, and hold an opinion on its meaning and causes. But to lecture Israel, a state that rose from the ashes of Europe's death camps, that a path it has chosen is a moral betrayal of its own past? That is chutzpah, and it would be a funny case-example of the word in Yiddish dictionaries were it not so disturbing. *[see note at bottom of post]
As troubling was the President's use of the word "appeasement" to compare those who would hold talks with enemies today (White House aides have acknowledged that he was speaking about Obama - in spite of official denials - and now it seems that he was, unbelievably, speaking about Israel's leaders) to those who held faith in "the false comfort of appeasement."
As several commentators have pointed out, though, appeasement, as it is usually used in reference to the build up to World War II, refers to the giving of substantial concessions to the enemy in exchange for peace. The most famous example, which Mr. Bush did not cite, is of course Neville Chamberlain, who in the 1938 Munich Agreement conceded to Hitler the Sudetenland area of Czechoslovakia. This left the country's economic core open to quick attack by the Nazi military. Chamberlain, however, thought that he had found a way to create "peace in our time," as he put it. Oops.
The danger of appeasement, then, is not simply sitting down with one's enemies. It is the act of making substantial concessions, such as strategically vital parts of countries.
With so much at stake we cannot afford to so abuse history and use ignominious catchphrases based in a shallow understanding of our past.
[According to the official White House transcipt, there was applause in the Knesset at this line. I am puzzled by this. I can think of two explanations. First, that the applause came from those in the Knesset that agree that any talks are harmful; Second, that the applause was in response to the President's criticism of appeasement, though the applauders may not have agreed with Bush's definition of appeasement. This seems more likely, since Israel has always been interested in negotiating (and even giving away land - see the Camp David Accords), and its new Syria policy is yet another example of this tendency].