A man of unshakable belief

Almost 70 years after making aliya, former defense minister Moshe Arens says time is on Israel’s side and that the Jewish state is the biggest success story of all time.

Moshe Arens (photo credit: MICHAEL ALVAREZ-PEREYRE/GVAHIM)
Moshe Arens
PERHAPS THE most infectious thing about Moshe Arens is his pervasive belief in Israel’s promise and accomplishments. Now 90, and approaching the 68th anniversary of his arrival in Israel, Arens says he never fails to appreciate the military, scientific, economic and social accomplishments the country has made since the pre-state era.
“If you look at the years of Israel’s independence, I think it’s all good,” Arens says.
“Of course, you’ve had ups and downs, but the curve is all good. I get asked sometimes ‘What would [Theodor] Herzl think if he looked at Israel today?’ And I quote my wife: Herzl would say ‘wow!’ “Herzl couldn’t have imagined that this is what the Jewish state would eventually become ‒ strong economically, strong militarily, an advanced country with great things happening all the time, defeating all its enemies ‒ how could he imagine that?” Given the arc of Arens’s life, his sense of optimism was far from a given. Born in Riga, Latvia, in 1925, he spent his teenage years in New York ‒ the family escaped the Holocaust by emigrating to the United States on September 7, 1939, just a week after the outbreak of World War II. There, he joined Betar, the youth group associated with Vladimir (Ze’ev) Jabotinsky’s Revisionist movement, eventually becoming the head of the group and a member of the Diaspora branch of the underground Irgun Zvai Leumi, headed, from 1943 to 1948, by Menachem Begin. He arrived in Israel in the summer of 1948 toward the end of the War of Independence.
Upon arrival, Arens’s association with the Revisionist movement made him persona non grata to the Labor Zionist establishment.
“People associated with Betar were definitely considered ‘outside the camp,’” he recalls, his New York accent still strong. “People had trouble getting jobs. I was probably the only MIT-educated engineer in Israel at the time, but I couldn’t get a job suitable for my qualifications. I interviewed for a job at Israel Military Industries ‒ they thought I was qualified, but when it came time for my security clearance, I wasn’t cleared.
“So my wife and I volunteered to help establish a border settlement, Mevo’ot Beitar, later renamed Mevo Betar, located right on the armistice line in the hills south of Jerusalem, adjacent to Wadi Fukin and Husan. After a year there, I went back to the US, did my master’s degree at CalTech, and by the time we returned to Israel the Technion was looking for a specialist in propulsion. Yaakov Dori, the president of the Technion, was a former chief of staff, but he didn’t care about party affiliations if he felt you could do the job and he was happy to hire me,” says Arens.
Five decades later, Arens speaks about the enmity between the Labor and Revisionist Zionist camps with an ongoing sense of shock, perhaps also sadness, but no trace of anger. He talks openly about the frustrations of being a Revisionist during the pre-state period and the early years of Israeli independence ‒ accusations that Revisionists killed Jewish Agency head Chaim Arlosoroff in 1933; David Ben-Gurion’s condemnation of Revisionist philosopher Jabotinsky as “Vladimir Hitler”; and later Ben-Gurion’s refusal to refer to Menachem Begin to illustrate the history of that era.
NOR WAS the tension between the groups limited to the Land of Israel. Arens’s 2011 book “Flags Over the Warsaw Ghetto: The Untold Story of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising” tells the story of Revisionist fighters, led by Pawel Frenkel, who were active in the 1943 revolt against the Nazis. Arens says Frenkel’s name barely appears in “official” histories of the ghetto uprising, which focus instead on Mordechai Anielewicz, leader of the Żydowska Organizacja Bojowa (Jewish Combat Organization).
“It’s obviously an ideological rift that runs very deep ‒ even in those desperate circumstances, Labor Zionists insisted that Jabotinksy’s people were fascists and they refused to collaborate with them in any way. To this day, they refuse to even acknowledge the heroic role that Revisionists played in the ghetto.
“It is a classic example of appropriation of history in order to glorify the Labor Zionist movement and also to avoid showing the Revisionists in any positive light at all,” Arens says.
Perhaps, as a result, Arens feels a particular sting about accusations that Israel has started to display “fascist” tendencies. He acknowledges that while every country in the world could stand improvement in some areas, the building blocks of Israel’s democracy ‒ particularly freedom of speech and voting rights ‒ are as solid as any country in the world.
Not surprisingly, Arens becomes most animated when the conversation turns to current politics and defense.
At 90, he is long retired from the political stage and his years as defense minister are long past, but the clarity of his thought has not dimmed. Neither have his views.
He remains deeply committed to Revisionist Zionism, and is regarded as a confidant and elder statesman to current Likud MKs, many of whom he says consult with him regularly about the issues facing the country today.
If there is any moment in the discussion when Arens turns coy, it is at the mention of Benjamin Netanyahu, whom Arens nurtured as a prodigy when the latter served as ambassador to the United States. Predictably, Arens is loath to discuss the details of Netanyahu’s domestic and foreign policies, other than to praise the prime minister’s “capability” and express admiration that Netanyahu has survived so long at the helm.
As for the notion that Netanyahu has somewhat abandoned Israel’s diplomacy by failing to appoint a full-time foreign minister, Arens feels that Netanyahu’s ability to impress, combined with the “excellent” director general of the Foreign Ministry, Dore Gold, is sufficient to identify and work effectively toward foreign policy objectives around the world.
“Sure, it might be better if someone took it on as a full-time job, but considering Netanyahu’s ability to impress people, the fact that Netanyahu is the foreign minister [is a good thing],” Arens says. “Look at the developing Israeli ties as the result of the prime minister’s trip to Africa, at the establishment of diplomatic ties to certain Muslim- majority countries. So, it’s not really that Israel doesn’t have a foreign minister. Our ambassadors are working, and it looks like they are making progress,” he says.
In the defense arena, too, Arens says the country is virtually unrecognizable relative to the Third World country he fell in love with nearly 70 years ago. Asked about Israel’s security challenges, he quotes Yigal Yadin, the second IDF chief of staff, who estimated in 1948 that Israel’s chances of defeating five Arab armies in 1948 as “no better than 50-50,” as well as the feeling of May 1968, when Israelis prepared mass graves in Tel Aviv in preparation for the Egyptian attack that seemed imminent. He also notes the opening hours of the Yom Kippur War, when the Syrian and Egyptian armies caught Israel by surprise and nearly brought the Zionist enterprise to a quick, bloody end.
In contrast, he says, today, Israel is considered the world leader in anti-terrorism operations, and every Western country seeks advice and counsel from Israeli security and intelligence services to counter threats by ISIS, homegrown radicals and other terrorist groups. He praises Israeli security apparatuses for honing their skills, and says some of the attacks that have occurred in Europe “could not” happen here.
“The groups committing the attacks would have been infiltrated and discovered here by our security services before they were able to attack,” Arens says. “Lone wolf attacks are, obviously, more difficult.”
While Arens mentions security as one of Israel’s top success stories, he is also known as one of the 19 MKs who voted against the Camp David Accords and the peace treaty with Egypt. Today, he admits that the treaty was a key factor in the fact that Israel and Egypt have not gone to war since 1973, but he has few regrets about the story period in Israel’s history.
“Of course I was not opposed to making peace. And I wasn’t necessarily opposed to making some territorial concessions to close the deal. “But I think the Yom Kippur War was the greatest victory in the annals of warfare. That was our last conventional war very much because of that victory: Egypt and others realized they had no chance against the IDF after starting a war with that sort of surprise, and ending up with us 101 kilometers from Cairo, the Egyptian 3rd army surrounded, Damascus within artillery range and them begging for a cease-fire.
“So we came to the negotiations with very strong cards, and I didn’t think we had to beg them for a deal. It was a terrible sign to send to any aggressor that any territory they lose while attacking us will be given back. It was unprecedented,” Arens says.
Despite the passage of years, one point from that period of time remains sore: The fact that Prime Minister Begin asked Laborites Moshe Dayan and Ezer Weizman to accompany him to Camp David – a fact Arens believes prevented Begin from holding out for a better deal.
“I know that both [Dayan and Weizman] put a lot of pressure on him to give in,” Arens recalls. “It is very puzzling that he didn’t ask me to come with him ‒ I was the chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee at the time. He also didn’t ask any of his old Etzel comrades like Yaakov Meridor or Chaim Landau to accompany him.”
If there is any area in which Arens feels Israel has failed to live up to the promise of its ideals, it is vis-à-vis Arab citizens of Israel. He says it took the first intifada, followed by the 1991 Madrid Conference, to get ordinary Israelis to understand that the country must address the aspirations and desires of the Palestinian people that is living with us, both as Israeli citizens and in Judea and Samaria.
“You can’t say ‘they’ have a problem. We have a problem ‒ they are our citizens, and if we don’t manage to integrate them into our society, into making them good citizens of the State of Israel, into having them be satisfied to be citizens of the State of Israel ‒ then we’ve got a problem. If 20 years from now a fifth of Israel’s citizens feel alienated, hostile to Israel, prepared to participate in terror attacks in Israel, we’re going to have an enormous problem. So it is imperative to address this point.
“NOW, I know it hasn’t been the No. 1 item on the agenda of past Israeli governments, and that applies to both Labor and Likud, and I’m not at all sure that it’s on the agenda of the current Israeli government. I was glad to see Netanyahu try to address the issue [with his recent announcement of a NIS 15 billion allocation to the Arab sector over the next four years ‒ AF]. But there is still a long way to go. Not enough is being done.”
Not that a large segment of the Arab sector is necessarily interested in creating frameworks for Palestinian Israelis to integrate into the State of Israel. While MK Ayman Odeh (Joint Arab List) has a history of encouraging Palestinians to integrate (and pushing Israel to create appropriate frameworks for that to happen), others, such as MKs Jamal Zahalka, Ahmad Tibi and Haneen Zoabi strongly oppose Arab citizens’ integration into a country they feel is occupied.
“There are opposing forces, no doubt about it. Some groups in the Arab sector do not want the Arab population to integrate into Israeli society. They want to preserve the gap, even widen it, and to polarize the situation between Jews and Arabs. And some people are trying to fire up religious sentiments by claiming that al-Aksa Mosque is ‘in danger.’ So, of course, it’s not that simple. A lot of this issue is a struggle within Israel’s Arab society.
“It’s also important to note that raising the electoral threshold has forced them into one framework, which means we can’t know how much of the electorate was interested in Ayman Odeh’s representation, or in Haneen Zoabi’s. So there are real questions about to what extent they identify with the party and the whole spectrum of views.”
To address this issue, Arens says it is essential for existing Zionist parties to make infrastructure and economic opportunity in the Arab sector a top priority. He says two Arab MKs ‒ Zouheir Bahloul (Zionist Union) and Esawi Frej (Meretz) are “excellent” Knesset members and cites their example as a model to welcome Arab representatives into the existing parties.
Turning to Judea and Samaria, Arens’s ideas are less concrete, apart from repeating his opposition to a Palestinian state and reiterating his long-held view that negotiating with former PLO chief Yasser Arafat was a mistake. In contrast to many Israelis who feel the Palestinian issue in Judea and Samaria is a “ticking bomb” that will explode in Israel’s face, Arens says confidently that time is working in Israel’s favor.
“So, in that sense, I don’t see what the rush is to give things away. As I said before, not only are we strong militarily, but we’re also strong economically. We have ongoing aliya, including from wealthy, Western countries. And, after all, we are talking about pieces of the Land of Israel, not some far away colonial empire.
“I’ve already spoken about what the immediate consequences of that unilateral move would be ‒ a Palestinian terror state.
So it makes no sense at all. Where is the fire?” Why are we rushing to give all this territory over? And to whom? Why would you say that time is not working on our side? What is about to happen that’s going to change the slope of that curve? I just don’t see it,” he says.
As we head for the door after nearly two hours, I ask Arens his view of a lyric from the American singer Billy Joel: “The good old days weren’t always good and tomorrow ain’t as bad as it seems.”
“Listen, Israel is certainly the biggest success story of the 20th century for sure, perhaps of all time,” he says.