Tribute: Wrestling with history, Moshe Arens and modern Israel

Arens won the Israel Defense Prize for leading Israel Air Industries’ development of the Kfir fighter plane.

January 8, 2019 04:42
3 minute read.

Three-time former defense minister Moshe Arens dies at 93, January 7, 2018 (Reuters)

Three-time former defense minister Moshe Arens dies at 93, January 7, 2018 (Reuters)


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Unassuming, studious and soft-spoken, Moshe Arens never thought of himself as a leader of the masses. That is why in 1992, when he was a natural candidate to succeed the resigning Yitzhak Shamir, he left the arena for his protégé, Benjamin Netanyahu.

Even so, history repeatedly found itself wrestling with the bespectacled aeronautical engineer.

In 1981 Menachem Begin wanted to appoint Arens minister of defense, but Arens refused, and thus paved the way for Ariel Sharon’s appointment.

How would the First Lebanon War have unfolded had Arens been defense minister? Would its conduct have been as adventurous, unruly, and disastrous as it was under Sharon? Would Arens have prevented the circumstances that made Begin clear the stage prematurely and devastated?

In 1987, in behalf of prime-minister Shamir, Arens torpedoed then-foreign minister Shimon Peres’s London Agreement with King Hussein, in a meeting with secretary of state George Schultz. Had Arens taken Peres’s side, would the first intifada that erupted later that year – and which in many ways is raging to this day – have never broken out?

Lastly, as defense minister in 1991, Arens thought the IDF should attack Saddam Hussein’s missile operation in west Iraq, but was overruled by Yitzhak Shamir. How would history have unfolded had that attack been waged?

These and other “what ifs” that checker Arens’s biography await history’s judgment, but on other fronts Arens can be appreciated already today as a scholar who brought to politics both principle and merit.

AS AN idealist, Arens turned down in 1981 the offer to become defense minister because he refused to oversee the evacuation of the Sinai, to which he was opposed. Similarly, when the government voted to nix the Lavi fighter-plane project in which he believed, he resigned. 

As a paragon of meritocracy, Arens won the Israel Defense Prize for leading Israel Air Industries’ development of the Kfir fighter plane. As such, Arens personified and helped inspire the spirit of inventiveness on which the Jewish state prides.

As defense minister, Arens created in 1983 the Ground Forces’ Command and in 1992 the Homefront Command, both of which exist to this day. Arens thus demonstrated that a civilian can be more effective than many retired generals as the military’s political guide.

Yet Arens’s most telling legacy is in the civic realm of Jewish-Arab relations.

THOUGH he was a territorial hawk who opposed the very concept of land for peace, Arens was a genuine liberal, a true disciple of Zeev Jabotinski.

Just like he thought Israel should be this big, he also thought it should be this just. That is why he vehemently opposed the Nation State Law which he said would alienate Arab citizens, and that is why as the minister in charge of Arab affairs he fought to raise government spending in Arab towns.

This was the complex background against which Arens called in 2010 to annex parts of the West Bank and offer their Palestinian inhabitants full Israeli citizens.

Arens believed that if treated as true equals the Palestinians would become happy neighbors of Israel’s Jews, and loyal citizens of their state.

While obviously debatable, it was part of a legacy whose origins lie in 19th-century Italian thinker Giuseppe Mazzini’s liberal nationalism, and whose impact on Jabotinski was decisive. In that thinking, nations are meant to be not bitter enemies, but happy neighbors. 

In today’s Likud this legacy is still upheld by President Reuven Rivlin, former justice minister Dan Meridor, and MK Benny Begin. Otherwise, this thinking is increasingly challenged by the populism and grandstanding that now sprawls from the White House through the Philippines, Hungary and Brazil to MK Oren Hazan and Culture Minister Miri Regev.

A principled, thinking, humble and low-keyed liberal like Arens would doubtfully reach in our era the kind of public positions he held in his. As Israel today lays him to rest, an irritating question arises: how many in the next Knesset will possess the merit, idealism, sobriety, modesty and gravitas that followed Moshe Arens wherever he went?

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