© The Jerusalem Post, November 6, 2001. Reprinted with permission
Everyone knows that historical analogies are tricky and sometimes raise more questions than they are supposed to address.
In comparing US President George W. Bush's current policies to the abandonment of Czechoslovakia in 1938, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon tripped up twice: first, even if one thinks that the United States administration is fawning on very questionable Arab allies, Saudi Arabia or the PLO are not the Nazis Neville Chamberlain was trying to appease.
Secondly, at a time when relations with the US are evidently under some stress, you don't attack the president of the United States at a moment in which he is leading his country to war and enjoys almost unprecedented approval in public opinion polls.
No wonder very few people in the US - even in the Jewish community - found it possible, after Sharon's outburst, to criticize the current drift in American policy.
Yet even if Sharon's analogy was warped, and his attack on Bush extremely ill-advised (did he check with the ambassador in Washington?) - the prime minister had a point. For there exists a much more apt analogy which - not surprisingly - does go back to 1938-39. But it is not Chamberlain and the Nazis, but the British and the publication of the pro-Arab 1939 White Paper on Palestine.
In the late 1930s the Palestinian Arabs rose in revolt against the British, accompanied by murderous attacks on the Jewish Yishuv. The British responded by brutal means, compared to which the Israeli response to the intifada may appear rather lenient.
Yet their policy on Palestine became entangled in their global strategy and eventually took a dramatic turn.
It was in the winter of l938-39 that prime minister Chamberlain and his cabinet realized that the policy of appeasing the Nazis regarding Austria and Czechoslovakia did not result in the "peace in our times" they were so desperately hoping for. London realized that war was imminent, and that it had better prepare for it.
It may take the British some time to react, but when they make up their minds, they can be ruthlessly ferocious in their effectiveness (see Prime Minister Tony Blair's recent statement that Osama bin Laden will eventually have to be assassinated rather than put on trial).
So the British government started planning for a war which they realized would now be inevitable: the production of tanks and aircraft was accelerated; the scientific research which eventually developed radar went into high gear; and on the global scene, looking for allies, the British realized that they needed to placate the Arabs (and the Muslims in India) and do something about Palestine. And they made a choice.
Looking dispassionately at the political scene, the British choice made sense: Britain needed the Arabs more than they needed the Jews. There were a number of reasons for this: there were more Arabs than Jews in the region, and Arab countries spanned an enormous expanse; the Arabs also had a choice of supporting the Nazis - as many of their leaders in Palestine and Iraq indeed did; the Jews, on the other hand, had no choice but to support the Allies.
And, last and not least, the international standing of the Jews was weak, given the ascendancy of Nazism and of anti-Semitic movements all over Europe.
So the British government decided to placate and appease the Arabs. The British White Paper on Palestine, which was released in the spring of 1939, was a dramatic withdrawal from the Balfour Declarations and the commitments Britain made to the League of Nations in accepting the Mandate over Palestine.
An absolute cap of 100,000 future immigrants was put on Jewish entry to Palestine - thus condemning the Yishuv to the status of a permanent minority in the country; severe limitations on purchase of land by Jews were enacted, ensuring that the Jewish population would not be able to spread out to areas - such as the Negev - which could give a future Jewish state an adequate territorial base.
This was indeed appeasement - not of the Nazis, but of the Arabs. And the reasons were the same as the current trend in US policy: because the Arabs were an unreliable ally; they could cross over to the other side.
It was politically a reasonable step; morally it was despicable. It was responsible for the British policy of turning back Jewish refugees from the shores of Palestine during the war, even if they were able to flee Nazi-occupied Europe. This was the policy which was responsible, among others, for the sinking of the Struma and for the deportation of the illegal immigrants of the Patria to Mauritius in the middle of the war against Hitler.
While intended to help win the war, British policy nonetheless had blood on its hands.
Did this policy pay off? One wonders. The Mufti of Jerusalem continued to support the Nazis, and spent World War II as Hitler's personal guest in Berlin; the Iraqis, under Rashid Ali al-Khailani, revolted against the British when London was under attack during the Blitz; and just before the crucial battle of El-Alamein, the British had to remove a pro-Nazi government installed in Cairo by King Farouk.
On the other hand, 50,000 Jewish volunteers from Palestine fought in the British Army. There were very few Palestinian Arab volunteers.
If Israel finds itself in jeopardy in this war, as a nation, Israel will eventually make its own strategic decisions.
Will the US's fawning on the Saudis and Palestinians pay off this time? There are already sufficient voices in Washington maintaining that in the current crisis, Saudi Arabia is not part of the solution but rather part of the problem.
Yet the book is still open.
The writer is currently a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, DC.