Soft-spoken hardliner

Former defense minister Moshe Arens says we've got to 'send in the troops.'

moshe arens 224.88 AJ (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
moshe arens 224.88 AJ
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
When the young waitress at Jerusalem's Crowne Plaza Hotel coffee shop apologizes for her lack of experience, explaining that she is "in training," Moshe (Misha) Arens engages her in conversation. Is she merely new - he wants to know - or on a trial period? Later, he makes a point of praising her to her superior, before insisting on picking up the check. A gentleman, he asserts, always pays for a lady. It is precisely this old-school courtliness that characterizes Arens, 82, one of the most respected veterans on the political scene. That he has remained an unwavering hawk throughout his life - from his youth in the United States, where he moved from his native Lithuania as a young teenager, to his becoming a leader of the revisionist Betar youth movement, to his making aliya when Israel became a state in 1948, to his joining the Irgun Zvai Leumi (IZL) and finally his becoming a Likud politician - makes his "nice guy" reputation all the more unusual. Not that the Knesset member-turned Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee chairman-turned ambassador to the US-turned defense minister (for three different governments)-turned foreign minister hasn't had his share of altercations. An aeronautical engineer by profession, Arens was a chief proponent of the home-grown Lavi jet fighter - a project that began in 1980, and which he continued to push when he became defense minister for the first time three years later. In 1987, when the cabinet voted to scrap the whole thing, Arens, at this point minister-without-portfolio in the national unity government headed by Yitzhak Shamir, resigned in a huff. This was the same Shamir Arens tried unsuccessfully to challenge as head of the party, first following Menachem Begin's 1983 resignation as prime minister, and again in the 1988 elections. Another perhaps more surprising rift would emerge a decade later, between the soft-spoken hard-liner and his protege, Likud prince Binyamin Netanyahu. Though it was Arens who had made sure Netanyahu would be appointed ambassador to the UN in 1983, and who subsequently championed his entrance into the Knesset in 1988 and his rise to prime minister in 1996, relations soured when Netanyahu sealed the deal with Yasser Arafat in 1997 giving 80 percent of Hebron to the Palestinians - and in 1998 signed the Wye River Accords with the PLO chief. Tension rose again in 1999, when the elder statesman, who had been like a father figure to the premier, even made an unsuccessful bid for the Likud leadership against him. Whether to show he harbored no hard feelings or not, Netanyahu then gave Arens the defense portfolio. Today, Arens makes it clear that in spite of criticism he may have had of Netanyahu's political or personal behavior over the years, he nevertheless believes and hopes that Bibi will be holding the reins of the country in the not-so-far future. "You have to choose the candidate whose ideas are as close as possible to yours, and who has a chance of being elected," says the regular contributor to the op-ed pages of Haaretz, one platform for attacking the Kadima government. "As far as I'm concerned, that's certainly Netanyahu." In the meantime, while keeping a watchful eye on current events that keep his right-wing blood boiling, Arens has been spending his time correcting what he considers historical injustices. His book Flags over the Warsaw Ghetto - which he says will be released at the end of the calendar year - is an attempt to set the record straight about the role Betar played during the Holocaust. "In time, the truth comes out," he says. "But you've got to work at it. It doesn't come out by itself." Is there no technology available today capable of countering the Kassam rockets - along the lines of the Patriot missiles we brought here against the Scuds during the Gulf War in 1991? Not at the moment. And Patriots did not shoot down a single Scud. During the Gulf War, some people were under the misconception that Patriots could do the job - which is why, with a heavy heart, I, as defense minister at the time, agreed to bring the Patriots over here. They've been improved since then, and they may now have better capabilities. In any case, today we have the Arrow, which can shoot down Scuds, and will do so if it comes to that. But we don't have the capability to shoot down shorter-range rockets yet, though this is in the process of development. You don't have to be an engineer to understand that the shorter the range of a missile, the more difficult it is to intercept. As a matter of fact, there was a time when the very idea of intercepting a ballistic missile was considered beyond the realm of engineering possibility. In World War II, when the Germans bombarded London with [the world's first ballistic missiles called] V-2s, it was assumed there was no way of shooting them down. The only way to stop them was to go after the launching sites, and and that's how the V-2 attacks on London were finally stopped. As for the Arrow, we were the first - and are still the only - country to have succeeded in developing an interception system for missiles coming from a range of 500-plus kilometers that is operational. The United States is in the process of developing such an operational capability, and maybe has completed it. Based on orders given by the defense minister shortly after the Second Lebanon War [in 2006] , we are in the process of developing systems that will intercept shorter-range missiles, such as those being launched from Gaza. Does the Arrow really have the capability to intercept missiles fired from Iran? Yes. It is the Arrow's primary purpose. As a former three-time defense minister, would you say that there are steps that could be taken to defend the residents of Sderot from missile attack? First of all, it's not only Sderot under attack; it's Ashkelon, and even Ashdod is being talked about as a target. And yes there are steps. We have to move in there and get the missiles out of range. Where short-range missiles are concerned, there is no choice but to go in there with troops on the ground. The big failure of the Olmert government now, as it was during the Second Lebanon War, is not understanding this, not wanting to do it and not doing it. No, this is a slight exaggeration, because have been attempts to deal with this from the air. But, with all due respect to the air force - and I have plenty of respect for it - it cannot be done from the air. You accuse the Olmert government of this failure, but wasn't the philosophy of the defense establishment, for at least a decade prior to the Second Lebanon War, that modern warfare requires focusing on air power, rather than on tanks and troops on the ground? The role of air power in warfare was being discussed even before World War II. And air forces indeed are very effective, particularly now that aircraft are armed with high-precision weapons. This means you don't have to carpet bomb, but rather can go after specific targets, if you have intelligence providing you their location. Still, there's a limit to what you can do with air power. When [former prime minister Ariel] Sharon decided to appoint an air force commander [Dan Halutz] as chief of General Staff, many people thought that it was a good sign of the times. Then, when the Second Lebanon War broke out, and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert did not want to move troops there, so as not to get stuck in what they call the "Lebanese quagmire" again, he was met by a chief of General Staff who told him, "You don't need to. The air force is going to handle it." But, of course, the air force couldn't handle it. He had to get troops on the ground. The same thing is happening right now in Gaza. He has to get troops on the ground, and he doesn't want to do it. What is happening as a result is that instead of the soldiers risking their lives to protect civilians, civilians are risking their lives to protect the soldiers. It's upside down. Speaking of Halutz, he recently made a statement to the effect that the Golan Heights is not necessary for Israel's security. What is your take on that? First of all, Halutz is incorrect, because it's better to sit on top than to sit on the bottom. Anybody can understand that. Furthermore, he might as well say that Galilee - or any other part of the country, for that matter - is not necessary for Israel's security. I suppose you could make the case that Israel might still be defensible without the Negev, for example, right? But it wouldn't be the same Israel any more. And the Golan is an integral part of sovereign Israeli territory. Hundreds of Israeli soldiers have fallen there - in three wars during which the Syrians attacked us - and today there are 30,000 Israelis living there. Though, even with the Golan Heights as sovereign Israeli territory, missiles flew into Haifa during the Second Lebanon War. Many argue that borders no longer have the same relevance to security as they used to. People draw completely unrealistic conclusions from the existence of missiles. As I said, ballistic missiles are nothing new. And the fact that somebody can shoot at you from a long distance using a ballistic weapon doesn't mean that any territory in between is of non-importance. I mean, if that were the case, we might just as well sit only in Tel Aviv, because missiles can even reach Tel Aviv from a distance. That's downright ridiculous. Furthermore, it is the short-range missiles that are the primary danger to civilian populations. This is not only because the longer-range ones can be intercepted, but because short-range missiles are cheap and in the hands of the terrorists. They have have to be put out of range, and the way to do this is to grab territory. It's true that the Syrians have lots of missiles, but what this means is that if you give Syria the Golan, their missiles will be that much closer to Tel Aviv. What, then, do you have to say about National Union MK Arye Eldad's recent claim that giving away the Golan Heights constitutes treason? I read in your paper that he said that all he did was read the relevant sections of the law. Still, I think he made a mistake. He's a very smart guy, but even smart guys make mistakes. Because the implications of what he said go way beyond reading sections of the law. I don't think that an Israeli prime minister who begins negotiations that might lead to a peace treaty involving territorial concessions should be labeled a traitor - if he can get public support for what he's doing. Regarding Olmert's negotiations with the Syrians, of course, there's a question of whether there is any public support for it, and certainly in this case, whether he even has the legitimacy to do it. Most people feel he doesn't. Speaking of public support for territorial withdrawals, how does the disengagement from Gaza fit into all of this? Disengagement [he sighs]. The uprooting of 8,000 Israelis from Gush Katif was a tragic mistake, by now recognized as one. It was based on very false premises: that we had no business being in Gaza; that it would bring peace closer; and that Israel would now be more democratic and Jewish. Well, once the Palestinians understood that we were prepared to return to the '67 borders - because we didn't only move out of Gush Katif; we also uprooted settlements in northern Samaria, from where they are now launching Kassams - peace was not closer, but farther away. And Israel is no more Jewish or democratic today than it was before the settlers in Gush Katif were moved out. Furthermore, the security problems we've been facing ever since - we've had security problems there before, of course, but those we've had since then - are due primarily to our having moved the settlers out unilaterally. This gave encouragement to Hamas and other Palestinians who felt that Israel could be driven out by force. And there's no question that Hamas's electoral victory can be attributed in large measure to its claim that it had driven Israel out of Gush Katif. This is why, after disengagement, they continued firing missiles into Israel. Because if they were able to drive Israel out of Gush Katif, why wouldn't they be able to drive Israel out of Sderot? Before disengagement, Israeli civilians were subject to daily suicide bombings in the center of the country. With the erection of the security fence and the disengagement from Gaza, this particular form of terrorism has been minimized. Can you honestly say that no part of this policy made sense? I have to correct you. This has nothing to do with disengagement. Indeed, we had a very serious problem with terrorism during what was called the second intifada - which, by the way, was sparked by the unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon [in 2000]. The Palestinians took it as a signal that what Hizbullah could do in the North, Fatah and Hamas could be doing in Israel proper. Sharon was very slow to react, and I criticized him very strongly for that during my last term in the Knesset. It was only after the massacre at the Park Hotel in Netanya that he decided to take matters in hand and move the army into Judea and Samaria. [He is referring to the March 2002 suicide bombing of a Pessah Seder, killing 30 and wounding 140.] That is what stopped these terrorist outrages - not the fence or disengagement. Can the current period be compared to the one before disengagement? It was said at the time that Sharon cooked up territorial withdrawals in order to deflect attention from his corruption investigations. It is now being said that Olmert is negotiating with Syria for the same reason. And, just as Sharon's policies continued after he became incapacitated - and Olmert took his place - is it not possible that Olmert's will also move ahead, albeit with another member of Kadima running the country? I think Kadima is finished. I can't give you a definitive prediction that it will garner zero Knesset members next time around, but if it gets much more than that, I'll be very surprised. In any case, the comparison with Sharon is not apt, because Sharon did have public support for disengagement. You might ask how he got that support, considering that most Israelis polled now say disengagement was a mistake. But they didn't think it was a mistake at the time. Are you saying that the comparison is not apt because the Golan Heights is viewed differently from the way Gaza was? It's a combination of things. One, Gaza had a terrible image. Two, Sharon's people lied. [Communications strategists] Reuven Adler and Eyal Arad sold disengagement as "getting out of Gaza," and most people - whose mantra was: "Ein lanu ma lehapes b'aza" ["There's nothing for us to look for in Gaza"] - bought that. But we weren't getting out of Gaza; we had gotten out of Gaza 10 years earlier. We were getting out of a settlement bloc. And this is while Sharon was making a big to-do about keeping the settlement blocs, and about how he had President Bush's agreement to keep them. But the biggest settlement bloc we had was in Gush Katif. Three, disengagement came from Sharon, the leading expert in Israel, and maybe even the world, on fighting terrorism. And many people, including from the Likud, said, "Listen, if Sharon says this is the right thing to do, maybe it's really the right thing to do." But Olmert doesn't have that kind of backing. And the Golan doesn't have the same negative image as Gaza. Nor can anybody sell the idiotic spin about keeping Israel democratic and Jewish. The Golan doesn't have a demographic problem. So, the only argument being used is that it belongs to Syria. Isn't another argument that making a deal with Syria would pull it out of Iran's orbit? In the first place, nobody knows whether such a deal would have that outcome. Secondly, [Syrian President] Bashar Assad said that this demand was completely illogical. What right, he asks, does Israel have, in the framework of a peace agreement, to tell him that he's got to change his relations with other countries? So, on this very weak assumption [that Syria would pull away from Iran], it makes no sense to pull 30,000 Jews out of their homes. The government will continue to try to come up with arguments, but none of them holds water. You say that Olmert doesn't have the public support that Sharon had. Does Foreign Minister and potential contender Tzipi Livni not have that support? Nothing like Sharon. Sharon had it because of his image as a great general, and he was a great general. If Kadima, as you say, is finished, will opposition leader Binyamin Netanyahu be the next prime minister? In Israeli politics, making predictions is a very dangerous game. But, according to the polls, Netanyahu will be the next prime minister - unless the polls change by the time we have elections - if he doesn't slip up along the way, or if somebody else doesn't come along whom we haven't heard of yet. Netanyahu has a reputation, even among his supporters, for problematic people skills, which has led to much turnover of his staff and difficult relations with his allies. It has even been said that you - his alleged mentor - fell prey to this character trait of his. Is it your assessment that he has changed in any way since he was prime minister, or learned something from his past mistakes? Netanyahu has been around for a while, which means that people have had a chance to observe him and identify certain faults - unlike, say, Tzipi Livni, who's squeaky clean, by virtue of the fact that she's never done or accomplished anything, or gotten anybody angry. That's what accounts for her popularity. I don't think she'd make a great prime minister, very far from it. She's got this bug in her head about setting up a Palestinian state, and that's what she's running with. Bibi, on the other hand, has been prime minister. He lost an election after having been prime minister. So some might question whether he'd be a better prime minister this time around. I suppose that when you get to a certain age, you don't change too much. But you can learn, and you should learn, and I think he has learned. He was a very good finance minister, and that's no small feat. We've had some very bad finance ministers. And the economy is a crucial part of Israeli society and statehood. Indeed, Netanyahu has been talking about economic cooperation with the Palestinians. But haven't attempts at such endeavors as the Erez Industrial Park failed for lack of a true partner? I agree [with Netanyahu's view] that helping the economy of the people in the territories is to Israel's benefit. This is not to say that I see it as the solution to the problem. I'm not sure the solution is really on the horizon, let alone right around the corner. But I think cooperating with the Palestinians economically is the right thing to do. How can Israel cooperate economically with the Palestinians, when any time money goes their way, their leaders pocket it or fund terrorism with it? Is there any way to engage is such things with the Palestinian Authority, which has not shown any evidence of encouraging growth? I wouldn't bank on the PA. It doesn't have any authority, and it's not clear how long it's going to be around. But there's a lot that can be done in terms of providing incentives for individuals and companies to create industrial parks, for example. There are many things that can be done that are not totally dependent on the cooperation of the PA. Is there a difference between Fatah and Hamas? Do you consider PA President Mahmoud Abbas to be a moderate? No, he's not a moderate. He was part of Yasser Arafat's retinue. He got his PhD in Moscow proving that there never was a Holocaust. But I think he did come to the conclusion, after we were so successful at defeating Palestinian terrorism, that terrorism was the wrong way to go. He may change. If he sees terrorism succeeding in Gaza, he may come around to the view that terrorism is the right way to go. In any case, his main problem is that he's powerless. He cannot undertake or implement any commitments. Anything he does gets "put on the shelf." Shelf agreements. There's a new term in international relations - one you won't find in any international-relations text books. You might find it in the supermarket, though [he laughs]. Netanyahu's opponents on the Right have claimed that in the end he won't be any different from the current prime minister, pointing to the fact that he made the Hebron deal, was prepared to give away part of the Golan and will have to go along with any US-brokered agreements - shelf or otherwise - already under way. Is there no truth to this? I myself have criticized him on some of these issues. But you know, politics is the art of the possible. So, if you're looking for the ideal candidate - if you think youth movements can become political powers - you're kidding yourself. You have to choose the candidate whose ideas are as close as possible to yours, and who has a chance of being elected. As far as I'm concerned, that's certainly Netanyahu. If some of the people to his right have somebody else in mind as a candidate, I think they're chasing a rainbow. Speaking of youth movements, what happened to Betar? That's an open wound for me. I was a leader of Betar in the US before coming to Israel, and I still consider myself to be an adherent. But unfortunately, it was not run properly. The people who should have been its leaders were pushed aside because they had not been in the IZL during the fighting against the British. They tried substitute organizations. That didn't work, and the legacy was just wasted. Today it's very hard to reconstitute it. It's very sad, because in many ways Betar was just the right youth movement for Israel once the state was established. The socialist-Zionist youth movements had worn out their welcome. Socialism is mainly a bankrupt ideology. Betar, which was dedicated to the State of Israel as an integrated whole - what [Ze'ev] Jabotinsky called "monism" - was tailor-made for this country. It also brought with it a tremendous legacy which even today is still not fully recognized. What the people of Betar did in the years prior to the establishment of the state - from the illegal immigration in the late 1930s that saved 25,000 Jews, to its crucial role in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, to the IZL's revolt against the British in pre-state Palestine, which set the stage for their leaving and Israel's being established. Which brings us to your book about Betar's role in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. What effect do you hope it will have? The book dispels the commonly accepted myth about the Warsaw Ghetto. There were two resistance groups - one led by Mordechai Anielewicz, and the other by Pavel Frankel. Both played a very important role in the revolt. They raised two flags over one of the buildings in the ghetto - the Zionist flag, today the Israeli flag, and the Polish flag. For four days, the Germans tried to pull down these flags. That was the biggest battle of the Warsaw Ghetto revolt. I'm hoping through the book that justice will be done, because the history of the Warsaw Ghetto was manipulated for political purposes. And that's not right. In general, the role of Betar and the IZL was minimized during the early years of the state. Some of this history came to light by virtue of [IZL commander] Menachem Begin's becoming prime minister [in 1977], which gave the organization and its role legitimacy. In time, the truth comes out, but you've got to work at it. It doesn't come out by itself. Would Begin have been given such legitimacy if he hadn't made a deal with Egypt that involved giving away the entire Sinai? But Begin was elected before that deal was made. And the very fact that the former commander of the IZL became prime minister naturally caused people to see that the IZL was important. The agreement with Egypt is responsible for the great popularity that Begin enjoys today among the Israeli public. You said that Israel's unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000 was the precursor to the second intifada. What was the treaty with Egypt a precursor to? The demand that Israel return to the '67 borders. Now, I wasn't against the peace treaty with Egypt. I was chairman of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee at that time, and I just did not think that after Egypt had invaded Israel three times - and had been defeated three times - that we should turn over all the territory they lost. There's no benefit to that in international relations. And now, today, when you say that there's no precedent for giving up the Golan, people say there is a precedent - Egypt. I think it was a mistake to set that precedent. I think we could have achieved a better deal with Egypt, if we had negotiated over a longer period of time. And the precedent was unfortunate, because both the Syrians and the Palestinians are basing themselves on it. One main point that has to be made here is that though Begin and [former Egyptian president Anwar] Sadat are credited with the treaty, the major part of the credit goes to the IDF and its victory during the Yom Kippur War. Within three weeks - after being attacked under optimal conditions for the attackers, and with Israel being taken by surprise - the IDF was 101 kilometers from Cairo. That is when Sadat and his generals concluded that they were not going to beat Israel by force. If his generals had told him they needed one more try - one more round of fighting to finish Israel off - there would have been no peace treaty, regardless of what Begin tried to do. I think that is true to this very day. If it should change, and one day the Egyptians conclude that they do have a chance of defeating Israel in battle, then we're in trouble. You mention Begin's popularity today. Does it not have something to do with the modest life he led - particularly in the current environment of corruption scandals? No doubt about it. The public longs for the good old days, when our leaders saw politics as a calling or a mission, not merely another job - one that's a way station to becoming rich, if not while in the prime minister's seat, then immediately afterward. It's not clear whether the clock can be turned back in this respect. What is clear is that we want to see leaders who are dedicated to the responsibility that is on their shoulders. And it's a heavy burden that shouldn't be taken lightly. When I was defense minister, whenever someone asked me if I was enjoying the job, I laughed. It's not exactly a job you can enjoy. You don't sleep at night worrying about defending the country and carrying out your duties responsibly. So, when I left the job, I felt no small degree of relief. How much of this difference between the old school leaders and the new ones can be attributed to their spouses? Look, I was never prime minister, but as a former defense minister, I can certainly understand the temptation leaders face. You move in circles of the world's rich, famous and powerful. And people who have a lot of money want to be close to you. Seeing how they live in style might make you wonder why you should be staying in a schleppy hotel, for example. But if you see your job as a calling, it should be relatively easy to withstand these temptations. And your wife should help you do that [he laughs].