In 1938, the leaders of Britain, France and Germany met in Munich to decide the fate of Czechoslovakia. Czechoslovakia was not invited. The three conferees agreed to strip the targeted nation of the Sudetenland, whose population consisted largely of ethnic Germans, and transfer that territory to German control. This deprived the victim state not simply of land but of those areas – mountainous, fortifiable – necessary for Czechoslovakia to be able to defend itself.
Today, the same three nations are doing the same vis-a-vis Israel. They are discarding UN Security Council Resolution 242, passed unanimously in the wake of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war and since then the cornerstone for all Middle East negotiations. They are ignoring the language of the resolution and the explicit declarations of its authors that Israel should not be forced to return to the pre-1967 armistice lines; that those lines left defense of the country too precarious and should be replaced by “secure and recognized boundaries” to be negotiated by Israel and its neighbors.
Lord Caradon, Britain’s ambassador to the UN at the time and the person who introduced Resolution 242 in the Security Council, told a Lebanese newspaper in 1974: “It would have been wrong to demand that Israel return to its positions of June 4, 1967, because those positions were undesirable and artificial. After all, they were just the places where the soldiers of each side happened to be on the day the fighting stopped in 1948. They were just armistice lines. That’s why we didn’t demand that the Israelis return to them, and I think we were right not to…”
Arthur Goldberg, the American UN ambassador, made much the same point, stating that the reference to “secure and recognized boundaries” intentionally pointed to the parties negotiating new lines entailing a less than complete Israeli withdrawal and that “Israel’s prior frontiers had proved notably insecure.” Lyndon Johnson, then President, declared Israel’s retreat to its former lines would be “not a prescription for peace but for renewed hostilities.” He advocated new “recognized boundaries” that would provide “security against terror, destruction, and war.”
Subsequent American presidents have reiterated Israel’s right to defensible borders.
The dangers for Israel of a return to the pre-1967 cease-fire lines are evident from even minimal consideration of the region’s topography. Such a withdrawal would not only reduce the nation to a width of nine miles at its center but would entail Israel’s handing over to people who continue to call for her ultimate dissolution control of hill country entirely dominating the coastal plane that is home to some 70% of Israel’s population.
It would also give potential hostile forces beyond the Jordan River untrammeled access to those heights.
This was what the drafters of Security Council Resolution 242 sought to preclude. And this is what the Munich Three now choose to ignore by calling upon the Quartet or the UN to abandon the emphasis on negotiations between the parties and to present a plan of its own based on Israeli retreat to the pre-1967 lines.
In the wake of the 1938 Munich agreement, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain declared, of course, that the parties had achieved “peace in our time.” But Britain and France also offered solemn promises that, should Germany unexpectedly violate the agreement and move against what remained of Czechoslovakia, they would come to the rump nation’s defense.
Less than six months after Munich, Hitler conquered the rest of Czechoslovakia. Britain and France did nothing.