Two major political parties in Israel still bear the names “Labor” and “Likud,” but the contending ideologies that fueled their founding—and animated the venomous quarrels between them—seem to be fading away. Where Labor is concerned, union membership continues to plummet, biting into the party’s natural constituency, and voters have continued to blame it for the failures of the Oslo Accords and the long years of Palestinian violence that ensued from them.
As for the Likud party, led for now by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, it still sometimes presents itself as the inheritor of the Revisionist Zionism of Vladimir Jabotinsky. But beyond a general disposition for national toughness—and a growing dislike for both the country’s over-powerful supreme court and over-calcified bureaucratic establishment—it is not clear what a post-Netanyahu Likud would stand for.
In a country built upon highly-charged ideological politics, the weakening of the old lines of division is a major development, perhaps salutary, perhaps not. But that’s reason enough to welcome In Defense of Israel, the recently published memoirs of Moshe Arens—one of the most accomplished, articulate, and clear-eyed figures on Zionism’s Revisionist wing. A founder of Israel’s defense and aeronautical industries, Arens was the most important early patron of Benjamin Netanyahu. During the 1980s and 1990s he served as Israel’s defense minister in three different governments and as foreign minister during the First Gulf War.
Still active in his mid-nineties, Arens writes regularly for Haaretz, where his calm and refreshingly incisive columns go some way to redressing the imbalance of that paper’s normal fare. In 2011, he published Flags Over the Warsaw Ghetto, a major historical work that brought to light the heroism of Revisionist Zionist fighters whose crucial role in the April 1943 uprising had been sedulously ignored or erased in the many standard accounts of the ghetto’s heroic Jewish warriors.
Arens’s new memoir, In Defense of Israel, similarly offers more than just a fine retrospective portrait of Revisionist ideology. The book is a first-rate political history of the state, and especially of the period during which Arens himself was closely involved in the country’s politics at the highest level.
Moshe Arens was born in 1925 to a prosperous family in Latvia that managed to depart for America just days after the 1939 Nazi invasion of Poland, thus sparing the boy from the fate of nearly all of his childhood friends. In New York, the family settled in the neighborhood of Washington Heights, where, like his near- contemporary Henry Kissinger, the teenage Arens attended George Washington High School. Unlike Kissinger, he never fully embraced American life. Already in elementary school in Riga he had precociously joined Betar, the Revisionist Zionist youth movement.
His “intuitive attraction” to Revisionism, Arens tells us, later turned into a “rational belief” in Jabotinsky’s teachings. (In July 1940, as a counselor at Camp Betar in upstate New York, Arens would be present when the visionary leader, on a visit to his young followers, suffered a heart attack and died.) If he was ever attracted to any other path than Zionist activism, we do not learn of it in this book, but his time in the U.S. was also formative in terms of his technical education. What he learned in the mechanical-engineering program at MIT, and later in graduate school at Cal Tech, helped him and a few others to build almost from scratch the engineering capacities of the new state of Israel.
Arens arrived with his wife in Haifa in September 1948, in the midst of a truce in Israel’s War of Independence. His joy was mixed with a certain bitterness: the new state lacked the size and expanse that Jabotinsky had asserted would be necessary to its survival and flourishing. Moreover, a few months earlier, David Ben-Gurion, the country’s prime minister and leader of Labor Zionism, had ordered troops to fire on the Revisionist arms ship Altalena, and the suspicion, not to say hatred, between the two camps would persist for decades to come. (Arens’s gentlemanly summation: “the [Zionist] task had not as yet been completed with the founding of the state.”) Through the early years, the Labor establishment would exclude Revisionists from many key governmental and bureaucratic posts. Most accepted the legitimacy of the new order and their own role as a loyal opposition. Then as now, foreign threats ameliorated deep domestic divisions.
In these circumstances, politics for Moshe Arens became a kind of postscript to a very distinguished career in aeronautical engineering. In the 1950s, after returning to the U.S. for graduate school, he worked on the development of turbojet engines for American companies—training, in his mind, for the build-up of Israel’s own aeronautical capacities. Back in Israel for good by the late 1950s, he taught at the Technion and helped turn its department of aeronautical engineering into one of the world’s best. In 1962, he became chief engineer of Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI), created by the brilliant American engineer Al Schwimmer, and boosted its efforts in missile and aircraft development. After the Six-Day War, when France, hitherto Israel’s main supplier, discontinued its sale of fighter jets, Arens spearheaded the effort to build a revised “Mirage 5” aircraft at home—this time with superior American engines.
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It was after the 1973 Yom Kippur War that the newly-founded Likud party asked Arens to run for the Knesset. By the time the party won its historic mandate in 1977, and its leader Menachem Begin became prime minister, Arens had risen to number three on the list, behind only Ezer Weizmann and Begin himself—evidence that Likud, which had never before won a governing mandate, was fairly short on talent. Even though Arens lacked the driving ambition of many of his peers, he turned out to be eminently qualified for high office.
Arens’s memoir offers a full account of his quarter-century in politics. On the whole, he dispatched his responsibilities with prudence and farsightedness, but the period in which he was most directly involved—the early 1980s through the early 1990s—would surely rank as a low point in the history of Israeli diplomacy. Despite a few remarkable successes, most significantly the ingathering of more than a million émigrés from the former Soviet Union, what stand out are the failures.
Into three of those failures he offers much provocative insight.
The first was the government’s astonishing decision to cancel the Lavi fighter-aircraft program in 1987. Developing a domestic fighter jet to match or exceed American, French, or Soviet models had been a priority for Arens since his days at IAI, and while in the Knesset in the 1980s he made it a government priority as well. In July 1986, the prototype Lavi had its rollout, and went into test flights that same year. By the time the second prototype was ready in March 1987, many considered it as good as the American F-16 and in some ways perhaps superior.
Arens rightly saw this program as a potential watershed in Israel’s developing freedom of action. Too many times in recent history (and, as it would turn out, in the years ahead), crucial shipments of weapons to the Jewish state had been made contingent on the state’s adopting positions in the best interest of others. And yet, in August 1987, the program was abruptly canceled.
According to Arens, although a number of American politicians and defense officials supported the program, U.S. Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger was implacable opposed, and went so far as to enlist Yitzḥak Rabin, Israel’s future prime minister and himself mystifyingly averse to domestic-weapons production, to help scuttle the project by means of doomsday predictions about its cost and allegedly rapid obsolescence. Of course, there are competing accounts of this episode that take Weinberger’s side, including one by his then-assistant Dov Zackheim. To me, Arens’s account has the ring of truth. In any case, in retrospect the canceled Lavi looks like a giant missed opportunity to develop a more self-reliant Israeli military.
Next, Arens offers an even more dismaying portrait of both Israeli and American responses to the first Palestinian intifada, which began in 1987. Unlike many of his parliamentary colleagues as well as members of Israel’s general staff, Arens believed that Israel needed both a military and a political response to the uprising. On the latter front, as minister of defense and foreign affairs under Prime Minister Yitzḥak Shamir, he pushed for what one might call a “localization” of the Palestinian question, advocating dialogue and perhaps negotiation with local Arab representatives in the West Bank and Gaza. The approach was meant to bypass Yasir Arafat’s Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), which had been inciting and planning violence from its safe haven in Tunisia.
This effort ran aground, due in part to the intriguing of a trio of Likud ministers including future Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Aiming to weaken Shamir, they claimed that the plan entailed dangerous concessions that would threaten Israel. Though inclined to Arens’s approach, Shamir was unable to contain the rebellion, especially since the George H.W. Bush administration, led by Secretary of State James Baker, was adamantly pressing for direct negotiations with the PLO. Once Rabin was elected in 1992, “localization” was sidelined.
We do not know whether Arens’s approach to the Palestinian question would have been fruitful. We do know that direct negotiations with the PLO, enshrined in the Oslo Accords, paved the way for Arafat’s return to Ramallah and the blood and mayhem that followed. Three decades later, it is all too evident that permitting the return of the PLO from exile stands as one of Israel’s greatest failures.
No less troubling is the climax of Arens’s memoir: a blow-by-blow account of the first Gulf War from his perspective as Israel’s defense minister.
In January 1991, two days after America attacked Iraq in response to the latter’s invasion of Kuwait, the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein began launching Scud missiles at Israel. In doing so he hoped to inflame and mobilize the Arab world against the Jewish state. Both publicly and privately, the Bush administration urged Israel not to retaliate, promising that the U.S. would protect it. Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney assured Arens that the U.S. was even prepared to “suffer [its own] casualties in order to destroy targets that threaten you.”
Washington’s stated reason for asking Israel not to retaliate was that Israeli involvement would fracture the wartime support that Bush had assiduously put together in the Arab world, particularly from Saudi Arabia. In an effort to get around this obstacle, Arens devised a plan to send Israeli commandos directly into Iraq to destroy its missile launchers. Ultimately, however, the Shamir government assented to the American demand.
Could Israel have successfully retaliated on its own against Saddam’s missiles? This, too, we shall never know, though it hardly seems beyond imagining. Perhaps Shamir had no choice but to avoid angering the United States. At the same time, however, the action taken by Washington in fulfillment of its pledge to protect Israel fell far short of what any sovereign country would do to protect itself. Despite celebratory images on American TV, America’s Patriot missiles mostly failed to take down the Scuds, and it was only by some miracle that Israeli casualties remained low. (Many of the missiles ended up falling in open areas.)
Moreover, Washington’s stated reason for keeping Israel out of the conflict was, at the very least, not the whole truth; with American troops already stationed in Saudi Arabia, the Arab coalition was in no real danger of falling apart. A perhaps deeper motivation for the Bush administration was its desire to promote a comprehensive peace deal after the conflict, one that would include the PLO and the other Arab states and that might be jeopardized if the U.S. appeared “too close” to Israel. Whether such a comprehensive deal would have been either possible or beneficial is highly questionable. In any case, for its self-restraint in the war Israel received no credit either with America or in the Middle East.
When it comes to guiding the security and defense policies of the state of Israel, Arens’s memoirs are a testament to a life devoted to three core Revisionist principles: (1) political sovereignty and maximum freedom of action; (2) opposition to land swaps (a/k/a “land for peace”) or unilateral withdrawal from territory; (3) liberality toward and engagement with Arab and other non-Jewish minorities in the country.
As we have seen, Moshe Arens, even when buffeted by party politics, was repeatedly able to hold and stick to all three of these principles. In this, as we have also seen, he is an exception on the Israeli scene, including among his fellow Likudniks. It is an enduring pity that his best ideas while in office were time and again thwarted and prevented from coming to fruition—a pity, and a distinct loss to the success of the Zionist national project.