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Safety Engineer

Aryeh Ehrlich

As Israel’s defense minister, one of his nicknames was “Mr. Security.” Decades later, he is still an authority on Israeli security and military affairs, but with his hands no longer tied by political constraints, Moshe Arens — who turned 90 last month — pulls no punches when the discussion turns to how Israel wins its wars but loses its battles.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

When Moshe Arens celebrated his 90th birthday at the end of December, it was a truly old-fashioned Israeli affair.

Surrounded by his many friends and supporters, the celebration was devoid of the pomp and fanfare that accompaniedPresidentShimonPeres’s 90th birthday bash in the summer of 2013 at the International Convention Center.

BillClintonand other celebrities were nowhere to be seen. Nor were the 3,000 VIPs from all over the world who came to fete Peres. There were no helium balloons. Neckties were scarce — a throwback to a bygone era where a tie symbolized American and European formality unsuited to Israelis’ brusque and unceremonious society.

Arens’s party was crowded, but with close friends and political comrades-in-arms — a generation of security chiefs, veterans of Israel’s aerospace industry and old-time Irgun buddies. They came for one reason: to show their affection and gratitude to a man who devoted his career to the safety and security of Israel’s citizens and who crafted an imposing posture of deterrence for the Jewish state that he is pained to see being steadily eroded.

But this was a night of celebration. Arens greeted his guests with his trademark humility and deadpan expression. He didn’t bat an eyelash when his most famous protege, Prime MinisterNetanyahu, declared that if not for Arens, he would never have entered politics.

In that respect, Arens and Netanyahu were cut from the same cloth.

Arens entered politics in 1973, in elections delayed by two months because of the Yom Kippur War. He was one of 39 Likud members who sat in opposition to Labor’s Golda Meir, whose party won reelection despite a tarnished reputation for having been caught by surprise when Egypt and Syria attacked. 

When the Likud under Menachem Begin was swept into power in the 1977 elections, Arens was named chairman of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. He bucked party discipline, voting against the Camp David Accords and the 1979 Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty, an issue we discussed with him in this interview. 

In 1982 Arens resigned from the Knesset to accept an appointment as Israel’s ambassador to the US, but by February 1983 he was needed back in Israel. He was tabbed for Minister of Defense, replacing Ariel Sharon, who had been forced out of office due to an Israeli investigative commission finding him liable for misconduct during Israel’s invasion of Lebanon. Arens served as defense minister until 1988, and again from 1990 to 1992, when he left politics. 

He did mount one comeback — in 1999, when he was badly beaten in the Likud primaries after challenging his former prot?g?, Netanyahu, for the party leadership. Netanyahu didn’t hold that against Arens and appointed him defense minister once again, but it was to be a short stint. Later that year, the Likud lost an election and Arens was out of the cabinet; and in the 2003 election he lost his seat for good. 

Born in Kovno, Lithuania, on December 27, 1925, Moshe Arens moved with his family to Riga, Latvia, when he was a little boy. Arens’s father had the good fortune to escape Europe before World War II, moving to America, with which he had become familiar on business trips. 

Arens was 13 when he arrived in America, settling in New York. Arens became a leader of the Likud’s Betar youth movement, where he became known by his nickname — Misha. Then, as now, membership in Betar was considered a stepping stone to a political career.

Toward the end of World War II, Arens turned draft age, so he joined the US Army Corps of Engineers. When Israel declared its statehood in 1948, Arens moved to Israel and joined the Irgun, who dispatched him to Morocco, Algeria, and Europe to help local Jewish communities establish self-defense groups. He returned to the US in 1951 and studied engineering at MIT and then aeronautical engineering at the California Institute of Technology. During this period, he married Muriel Eisenberg of New York. The couple eventually had four children. 

In 1957, Moshe Arens and family returned to Israel for keeps. He was a professor of aeronautics at the Technion and then joined Israel Aircraft Industries, where he became a vice president for engineering, eventually winning the Israel Defense Prize in 1971 for his work on the Kfir jet fighter program. 

His real love was designing airplanes, and politics was more a duty than a passion, but Arens proved equally adept at it. 

In the early days, he didn’t even know if he’d succeed. “I know that I’m a very good aeronautical engineer, and I don’t know that I’m a good politician,” Arens told the New York Times in 1982 when he became ambassador to the US. “It’s difficult, frustrating, much of it is quite boring, and I don’t have driving political ambition. I really don’t know if I have the makings of being a diplomat.” 

Arens was right insofar as he was too candid and probably far too dry for the job. However, he developed a reputation as an articulate, bright-minded hawk who presented Israel’s tough face to the world in clear, persuasive, unaccented English.

Brevity was his watchword. 

Watching him spar with iconic newsmen like ABC’s Sam Donaldson or NBC’s David Brinkley on the Sunday morning news programs in the late 1970s and early 1980s was a lesson in television journalism. Arens volleyed terse, one-line answers in response to questions probing the inside workings of Israel’s defense policy. Interviewers had to be ready at any second with a follow-up, or their next question, to avoid every broadcaster’s dread — dead air.

In that respect, his expansiveness in answering our questions represents a new phase for Moshe Arens. As a private citizen, he doesn’t have to worry that one wrong word could cause grave diplomatic harm to the country he has served faithfully.

Talent or Connections?

Arens invited us to his home in Savyon, an exclusive Tel Aviv suburb, a couple of days after his milestone birthday celebration. His walls are lined with testimony to his illustrious career. Photos with a variety of world leaders tell his story. We sat in his living room — a room that is essentially Moshe Arens. A large chessboard takes center stage. “I’m really not a big chess player,” he smiles, “but in politics, as in chess, you have to plan ahead.” 

We began our discussion at the beginning, with the history behind him bringing Binyamin Netanyahu into politics and his assessment of Bibi’s performance in office.

“Politics is not a pleasant occupation. There are some people who enjoy it and who get an adrenaline rush from the action. But I’ve usually found it unpleasant. The rivalries, the enmity, the conflicts, the constant efforts to trip other people up”

What did you see in Netanyahu that prompted you to induce him to join the diplomatic corps? 

“Back in 1982, when Menachem Begin sent me to serve as the Israeli ambassador to Washington, I began to put together a working team. One of my first choices was a young man named Binyamin Netanyahu. I knew Bibi through my connection with his father, Professor Benzion Netanyahu, who was in charge of the offices of the Revisionist movement in the US during World War II. That was also where I met Zev Jabotinsky. Years later, when I served as the chairman of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee in the Begin government, Binyamin Netanyahu called me up and asked to meet with me. That was the beginning of a close relationship — and when I put our diplomatic delegation together, I tapped him, eventually appointing him as Israeli ambassador to the UN.”

Can you share your assessment of the job performance of the man who has now become Israel’s longest-serving prime minister?

“He’s extremely talented, and it’s impossible to know what would have happened had I not tapped him. I’m sure he would have made something great of himself in any scenario, even if it wasn’t in politics. He has natural gifts that no one can take away from him. And you can’t ignore that even his detractors haven’t found someone better to take his place. A decisive majority of the country feels that Netanyahu is the most suited to his job and that there is no one who can replace him.”

Do you agree, considering you once tried to unseat him as party leader?

“Well, I’m not sure no one can replace him, but I don’t think that there are hundreds of people who can, either. Anyway, we live in a country chock full of opportunities, and most gifted people have found their area of accomplishment outside of politics. There was a time when the most talented people entered politics, but to my dismay, that time has passed.”

Do you miss the world of politics?

“Politics is not a pleasant occupation. There are some people who enjoy it and who get an adrenaline rush from the action. But I’ve usually found it unpleasant. The rivalries, the enmity, the conflicts, the constant efforts to trip other people up. I also suffered from endless character assassination.”

What did people say about you? 

“Before I became a politician, I was a professor at the Technion. When I went into politics, someone spread a rumor in the newspapers that I had never received a degree and that I had worked as a professor under false pretenses.”

How did you persevere? 

“At that time, there was a tendency to let many things pass, and that is a good thing. But even then, politics was unpleasant. In every other field, a person is assessed based on his professional qualifications. In politics, on the other hand, there are no rules. Proving that you are worthy doesn’t help you advance at all. Everything depends on your connections, not on your talents.”

The High Price of Peace

Moshe Arens was in his second year in the Knesset when he defied party leader Menachem Begin and voted against the 1979 Camp David treaty that formally ended hostilities between Israel and Egypt. Under the accord, Egypt also received back the Sinai Peninsula, which Israel had captured during the June 1967 Six Day War. 

Arens says he didn’t oppose making peace per se, but was vehemently against the extent of the concessions. These included Israel relinquishing its two sophisticated air bases in Sinai, requiring them to be rebuilt a few kilometers away at major taxpayer expense. He considered the evacuation of the small Yamit settlement block in the northeastern Sinai to be a bad precedent. Some 2,500 Jews were expelled, some of whom moved a few miles north to Gush Katif, only to be re-expelled during the 2005 Gaza Disengagement. 

Arens also thought it economically unwise for Israel to concede the Alma oil fields it had discovered and developed after the Six Day War. By then, Alma was providing some 40,000 barrels of oil a day, or one-fourth of Israel’s energy needs. Within the next two years, geologists projected some 160,000 barrels a day could have been extracted, making Israel energy independent.

With the passage of 36 years, the peace treaty with Egypt seems to have passed the test of time. Has your view changed?

“I never opposed the peace with Egypt, but I still believe that if a country attacks us as Egypt did, we have no obligation to return the territories that it lost in war. Egypt attacked us four times: during the War of Independence they closed the straits of Eilat, they attacked us in the Six Day War, two years later in the War of Attrition, and again in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. They were defeated in the four wars they initiated. So what was the logic of returning territories? It had no precedent in world history.

“The Egyptians understood that they would never be able to defeat Israel militarily, so they made a strategic decision to sign a peace agreement with us. I felt then, and I still feel now, that we should have stood firm and not returned what they lost in war. But Begin didn’t listen to me, and he didn’t take me to Camp David. Instead, he brought Moshe Dayan and Ezer Weizmann, and the result was the agreement that was signed with the Egyptians. Some people maintain that if Begin had accepted my position and had told Sadat that he was not prepared to evacuate Yamit and the airfields, there would have been no agreement. But even if that is true, from the Egyptian standpoint, another round of fighting against Israel would have been unthinkable.

“The fact that the peace agreement with Egypt has been kept has to do with our joint security interests and with the fact that Israel and Egypt share common enemies. We have yet to see President el-Sisi — or any Egyptian leader since Sadat — visiting Jerusalem, and the Egyptian people on the whole oppose the peace agreement. The fact that [Mohamed] Morsi, the man from the Muslim Brotherhood who served as the president of Egypt for a short period of time before el-Sisi, didn’t consider resuming hostilities with Israel has no connection to the peace agreement; it has to do with Israel’s military superiority.”

And Begin didn’t understand that?

“I can’t speak for Menachem Begin. I know he felt that Sinai wasn’t part of the Land of Israel. Begin called me one day and said, ‘Moshe, you have to understand that the Torah doesn’t say that Sinai is part of the Land, and [then chief] Rabbi [Shlomo] Goren told me that it isn’t part of the Land.’ But my reasoning wasn’t based on halachah. I felt that from a strategic standpoint, it would be better not to give up the territory.”

Do you see the surrender of the Sinai as the precedent for the Palestinians’ current territorial demands?

“Absolutely. It was the precedent for the Palestinian and Syrian demands for us to give up land, and it’s the basis for the Arab expectation that they will regain possession of land that we conquered in wars that we didn’t start: the Sinai for the Egyptians, the Jordan Valley for the Jordanians, the Golan Heights for the Syrians, and Judea, Samaria, and Jerusalem for the Palestinians. It has become the norm for territorial concessions to be a prerequisite for a peace agreement. The Arab world accepted the agreement with Egypt as a precedent, and it’s not easy to argue with them. As you know, we were very close to signing an agreement with the Syrians that would have meant giving up the Golan Heights to Assad. Even the Israeli public has accepted the agreement with Egypt as a legitimate precedent. Today there are people who say that we should return to the Green Line. Everything began with the surrender of the Sinai.” 

What your view on the two-state solution of today?

“I do not support the establishment of a Palestinian state. I don’t see it happening in the near future, and I certainly don’t want it to happen either. If a Palestinian state is established in Judea and Samaria, it is clear that it will be controlled either by ISIS or by Hamas. What is happening now in Gaza will happen in Judea and Samaria as well, and the residents of the center of the country will be exposed to the reality that the residents of the south have being living with for years.”

Is Terrorism Beatable or Inevitable?

As defense minister, Moshe Arens was responsible for Israel’s external security, not its internal security, but as a former top-level government official, Arens keeps close watch and is officially kept abreast of internal security developments.

Since Succos, the uptick in terror has claimed the lives of 29 Jews and injured almost 500 more. While tighter security measures and increased vigilance among citizens has made a dent in the numbers of incidents, Israelis are worried. 

Do you have a solution for restoring calm to our cities?

“I’m a scientist by training, and as every scientist knows, not every problem has a solution, and I think that the same is true in the political sphere. There is no possible way to solve the root causes of terror in a way that will satisfy everyone. I don’t think such a solution exists. What is happening in Gaza, which is busy firing missiles at us from the land we gave them, is a warning to us of what happens when we give up territory.” 

As a seasoned veteran of so many waves of terror and threats of war in the past, how would you compare our current situation to what you’ve experienced in the past?

“I’m not implying that we should get used to this situation, but I do want to remind you that during the Second Intifada from 2000 to 2005, over 1,000 Israelis were killed. At that time, you couldn’t travel by bus. On the Seder night in 2002, thirty people were killed in a suicide bombing at the Park Hotel. We are now witnessing a different type of terror, one that is not organized or established, and to Netanyahu’s credit, I can say that during his tenure as prime minister, we have not seen organized mass terror attacks because most of that infrastructure has been destroyed. And the Shin Bet should get a lot of the credit for their ability to prevent organized attacks like the one perpetrated by ISIS in Paris last month.

“When you think about it, though, you can understand why it’s much more difficult to stop a lone-wolf attacker. If a terrorist is sent by an organization, the Shin Bet can be forewarned, because it has tapped their communications and it has been monitoring their activists. But a lone-wolf terrorist simply gets up in the morning and decides to murder Jews. In this situation, the only people who can respond are we, the individuals. In Jerusalem, in most cases the terrorists have been killed on the spot, although sometimes it happens only after the terrorist has been able to injure or kill. But that’s the first line of defense in combating this kind of terror.”

Are you saying that the government should be absolved of any responsibility for lone-wolf terror?

“The government has brought large numbers of soldiers and police officers into Jerusalem to step up security in the city. That’s one reason terrorists are being neutralized quickly. The government isn’t sitting by idly.”


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