Jerusalem: A Pragmatic Ideologue

Israel’s new defense minister .; Moshe Arens, is less abrasive than his predecessor, but no less fervent in his devotion to a Greater Israel

THE APPOINTMENT, IN February, of Moshe Arens to replace Ariel Sharon as Israel’s defense minister was greeted with almost universal cheer—in the Israeli press, in Washington, and among both the Egyptians and the Lebanese. One Israeli Cabinet minister said at the time, “I have the feeling that the secret of Arens’s popularity is to be found in the theory of relativity. After Sharon, anyone is a relief.”

The respite may prove to be temporary, for Moshe Arens is no less a hawk than was Ariel Sharon. His style, however, is vastly different. He has, according to one senior American diplomat, the ability to disagree without being disagreeable. Sharon was a bully, who was absolutely convinced of the justice of the cause he espoused. He was a talker, whose ears were hermetically sealed to the reasoning of others. He was a shrewd politician, who stopped at nothing to get his way, including a heavy reliance on double-talk and overt threat. Arens is a listener. His style is AngloSaxon. He wears an MIT graduation ring on his right hand and speaks with an American accent in both English and Hebrew. But he is an Israeli patriot, and believes in the principle of a Greater Israel as conceptualized by Vladimir Jabotinsky and brought to political reality by Menachem Begin.

To Arens, the West Bank is properly called Judea and Samaria, and he has felt this way since he joined the Betar Revisionist youth movement, four decades ago. His Zionist education and philosophy dictate that these areas are an integral part of Israel. He believes not only that they are essential from a security point of view but that they belong to Israel historically, and are therefore not negotiable.

The new minister’s ideology regarding Judea and Samaria is, in fact, far more steadfast than was Sharon’s. Only six years ago, when running on an independent ticket in the 1977 elections, Sharon announced that he was prepared to agree to a Palestinian state on the West Bank in exchange for a durable peace. For him, the West Bank was a lever on the fulcrum of Menachem Begin’s Likud government. Development of the West Bank was included in Sharon’s portfolio as minister of agriculture, and he understood that he could expediently use the authority vested in him to win the hearts and trust of Begin’s Herut Party, witch regarded him as a maverick and an opportunist. He translated its dreams of a Greater Israel into reality.

For Arens, the retention of the West Bank has been a matter not of expediency but of belief. True, some cracks in that belief have become evident of late, probably attributable to Arens’s education in the months he served as Israel’s ambassador to Washington, prior to being called back last February to take over from Sharon.

In a recent interview, Arens was asked if he thought Israel would ever give up the West Bank. “In politics,” he replied, “only a fool says never.”

That may seem a mild enough statement, but it is a profound change from previous “not-one-inch” pronouncements. Arens was also conspicuously absent from a government-sponsored ceremony naming a new’ Israeli town— Nablus Elite—in Samaria. The ceremony was supposed to have been the centerpiece of Israel’s Independence Day celebrations on April 18, but instead it turned into the focus of political debate in the country.

Arens’s aides explained away his absence by claiming that he had other duties. Industrious Israeli journalists discovered that the Minister’s agenda for the day could have allowed for his presence at Nablus Elite. The truth is that Arens feels that more settlement on the West Bank at this time is not propitious, in view of diplomatic considerations. King Hussein’s fallout with the PLO, Yasser Arafat’s own weakness within that organization, and Saudi ArabianAmerican tensions over the Saudis’ lack of enthusiasm for helping with the Lebanese negotiations have all provided an opportunity to cement Israeli-American relations. It is folly to irritate the Americans now, when the time is ripe to be courting them, he thinks, and he knows that there is no greater source of irritation to the Americans at present than Israeli settlement.

But, for Arens, suspending settlement would be a tactical move. He believes that, strategically, Jordan is a Palestinian state, and that the best the 800,000 inhabitants of the West Bank territories under Israeli control can hope for is limited autonomy. Ideally, in his view, the inhabitants would become citizens of a Greater Israel, enjoying the same fruits of Israeli democracy as Israel’s 600,000 Arab citizens.

ARENS THINKS WITH an engineer’s sense of realism about forces and costs. Good relations with the United States are freshly imperative for Israel. The war in Lebanon has cost billions of dollars, stretching Israel’s already overextended economy to the breaking point. The war has also taken a toll on Israel’s military inventory, which now has to be replenished.

Moreover, Israeli military planners are extremely worried about the growing imbalance of the Middle East strategic equation. It is estimated that the Arab states in confrontation with Israel have spent $83 billion on arms since 1973; their combined arsenals boast the most advanced weaponry from both East and West. In order to maintain strategic balance, and thus a viable deterrent, Israel needs more sophisticated weapons, and more aid dollars to buy them with.

In short, this is not a time for exacerbating relations with the Americans, without whom these problems become almost insoluble. This realization has had a profound impact on Arens, but he might not ever have come to think this way had he not stepped out of the hermetic environment of internal Israeli politics into the reality of Washington, where Menachem Begin’s policies are viewed as detrimental to American interests by more and more of those who mold policy.

Arens was quick to find a way to speak to Americans in a language they understand. He managed to articulate the same philosophies held dear by Begin but to do so in a way that his listeners could at least comprehend, and even sympathize with to some extent.

“It is such a relief,” a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee said at a cocktail party in Washington in October of last year, “to get a rational answer to a rational question.”

“I asked Arens why Israel was so opposed to our selling F-16s to the Jordanians,” he continued. “He took out a pen and paper and explained the problem. And the most incredible thing of all is that he did not mention either the Holocaust or the Bible.”

Arens also spotted a potential ally in Secretary of State George Shultz. An unusual rapport developed between the two men. That Shultz invited Arens, early this year, to a concert at the Kennedy Center, followed by a private dinner, was a demonstration of their friendship. It was an unusual gesture by the Secretary toward an ambassador, and especially the ambassador of a country officially being given the cold shoulder, as Israel was at the time, following its rejection of President Reagan’s plan for peace in the Middle East.

Arens has displayed his sensitivity to the American position on several occasions. He was privately appalled by the Begin government’s outright, almost hostile, rejection of the Reagan peace plan, and is reported to have suggested to the Israeli government that it should reconsider its settlement policy.

Almost immediately upon occupying the defense minister’s office, Arens opened a hot line to Washington. When there was trouble in Beirut between the Israel Defence Forces and the Marines, he worked out a solution with Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger. What had been becoming a major incident—a test of wills—when Sharon was minister was handled by Arens with quiet diplomacy. Arens refrained from chastising either side and from casting blame. He simply suggested that better liaison be set up in the future to ensure rapid communication in the event of trouble.

Arens then announced that he had decided to release technical and operational information derived from Israel’s experience in the Lebanese war. An agreement in principle on this issue had been signed by Israel and the U.S. last November, but Weinberger had refused to ratify it, asserting that Sharon’s demands for reciprocity were outrageous.

Realizing that the Americans would never agree to Israel’s demands that the information passed on be linked to unrealistic promises for the future, and that the CIA had managed to provide the Administration with most of the data anyway, Arens announced Israel’s unilateral gesture. Obviously, Israel had little to lose and much to gain.

Arens had a deeper reason, as well. As an engineer who fathered Israel’s fighter-aircraft program, he knows how dependent Israel is on American technology. Israel’s Merkava tank, Kfir fighter, air-to-air missiles, avionics, and electronics are all derived from American technology and components. The relationship began in a mutuality of need: America needed Israel’s combat experience to make better weapons, and the Israelis needed frontline American technology to maintain a qualitative advantage. It was therefore essential, Arens concluded, that this relationship be fostered, not hindered.

Arens’s gesture was not lost on Shultz. Within two weeks, the Secretary informed Arens that the Administration had decided to release the technology Israel had requested for the Lavi fighter program, the delivery of which had been suspended since last November.

In order to manufacture the fighter, Israel needs American help on the composite wing structure of the aircraft, and on fly-by-wire (computer-activated) technology. Three studies, commissioned from General Dynamics, Grumman, and LTV, at a cost of just under $1 million apiece, had been completed but were being held up by the State Department, primarily on the insistence of Weinberger, whose position was that the embargo should remain in force until Israel withdrew from Lebanon.

Arens phoned Shultz and explained that if the U.S. was not forthcoming, Israel would be forced to seek the same technology elsewhere, or else downgrade the aircraft. It would be built with or without American help.

It is impossible to know what impact Arens’s argument had on the Secretary, but an argument that Shultz did take seriously was made by a former Israeli official who maintains regular informal contact with the Administration on Israel’s behalf.

“What you are doing,” the Israeli said, “is forcing Arens to become Sharon. He stands in danger of being accused [of being] weak if he pursues compromise and is spurned in return. You will force him into hard-nosed positions, or at least give those who support Sharon the opportunity to say ‘We told you so.’”

Shultz accepted the argument that if Arens’s moderation was to be encouraged, it had to be supported; armed with this argument, Shultz persuaded the President to allow the Lavi transfer when they met to discuss Israel at Camp David last April.

IF ARENS is GOING to have any real impact on Israeli policy, however, he is going to have to build support within the Israeli Cabinet. At present, his position seems strong. He is supported by key figures in the Israeli political establishment, who represent the two largest political blocs in the governing coalition— Herut and the Liberals. Arens apparently enjoys the support of Prime Minister Begin as well. He became acting chairman of Herut when Begin became prime minister, in 1977.

Just how much support Arens enjoys became clear in May when he managed to push through the controversial accord reached by Israel, Lebanon, and the U.S. for the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Lebanon. The ministers were unhappy with the terms reached, and Sharon was particularly so, but few could argue with Arens’s logic: Israel was bogged down, caught in the crossfire of Lebanon’s warring factions, and sustaining heavy casualties. These in turn were affecting the government’s popularity to a point where, for the first time in six years, the Labor opposition was ahead at the polls.

If the Israeli government agreed to the accord, Arens argued, not only would it restore the public’s confidence in the government, it would further cement ties between Jerusalem and Washington. Arens was well aware of the fact that if the agreement worked, Israel would be giving the Reagan Administration its first foreign-policy success.

Arens argued that by agreeing Israel had nothing to lose. If the accord was successful, Israeli forces would be withdrawn from Lebanon simultaneously with those of the Syrians and the PLO, creating circumstances that would at least give President Amin Gemayel’s pro-Western government a chance to survive. Furthermore, Israel would have a peace treaty of sorts with a second Arab state, in addition to Egypt, as well as adequate security arrangements on its northern frontier. If it failed, the onus for failure would fall on the Syrians, and thus deflect any American and European pressure from Israel.

“Pragmatically,” Arens explained to the Cabinet at the time, “agreement is our only course.” The Cabinet agreed, the only opposition coming from Sharon and Yuval Ne’Eman, the development minister. The new defense minister had won his first round.

Sharon, on the other hand, seems isolated, but knows that he has the right wing in his corner, waiting to re-anoint him. Since his dismissal in February, for his indirect responsibility for the massacres at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps last September, Sharon has been silent. He hardly speaks at Cabinet meetings, and has not been invited to any of the important Cabinet consultations on Lebanon, although he is a member of the Lebanese steering committee.

“He is waiting for Arens to slip,” one Cabinet minister said in an interview recently. “Sharon is wounded, but not out. Any sign of weakness by Arens, and Sharon will strike. For that is the way of the shark.”

Arens will not be easy bait. He has, in addition to political support, the support of the military, which is relieved to be rid of Sharon—especially after the war in Lebanon.

“What is best about his appointment,” a general commented recently, “is that Arens has never worn a uniform, and, unlike Sharon, will not appoint himself commander-in-chief over the general staff. Arens will provide the logistics and the policy. We will do the fighting. We prefer it that way.”

Arens, fifty-seven, has been closely associated with the defense establishment for nearly thirty years. He was the deputy director of the Israel Aircraft Industries, heading some of the country’s largest defense projects. He was the driving force behind the Kfir-fighter development team, and other systems that remain classified. He was an outspoken advocate for increased defense spending when he was a member of the Knesset, and was seen as one of the military’s most important lobbyists in the House when he headed the important Knesset foreign-affairs and defense committee.

Arens makes no pretense of being a general. He hired one—Major-General Menachem Meron—as a senior aide, to provide him with an independent assessment of Israel Defence Force demands.

Arens has also brought in a low-key but highly respected officer, Moshe Levy, as chief of staff of the IDF, and has appointed former Air Force commander David Ivri as deputy chief of staff. Both Levy and Ivri are proven technocrats and managers, and pivotal players in the defense team Arens is hoping to build. In his first meeting with his staff upon assuming office in February. Arens said: “We are a team. I, the manager.”

As opposed to Sharon, Arens believes in the delegation of responsibility. He has set up teams of experts to look into how law and order can be maintained in the administered territories until an agreement is reached, and to guide Israeli military production. He has chosen officers known for understatement, who will keep out of politics.

More important, one can expect from Arens a fundamentally different attitude toward the use of force. Sharon and the chief of staff who served under him, Rafael Eitan, believed that the use of force was a legitimate, and even preferred. means of attaining primary policy goals. Operation Peace for Galilee was a façade for radically changing the Lebanese power structure. The destruction of the PLO infrastructure and the removal of the knife from Galilee’s throat was a goal, but it was only part of a master plan in the pursuance of which force was used mercilessly. Similarly, Eitan’s and Sharon’s orders for trying to ensure subservience on the West Bank and in Gaza were testimony to their belief that might is right. The use of force was seriously discussed with regard to Syria.

Arens disagrees with Sharon over the use of force in general, and over certain basic concepts of what is in the interests of Israel’s security.

Both Arens and Levy believe that a strong Israel is one that projects an image of strength. For the image to be credible, the IDF has to be efficient, non-controversial, technologically attuned to the twenty-first century and backed by strong ties with the U.S.

Arens inherited the defense ministry at a time of almost unprecedented turmoil in Israel. There was a war to be dealt with in Lebanon; there were riots and disorder on the West Bank and in Gaza; the Americans were withholding technology necessary for Israel’s immediate security and would not lift the embargo on seventy-five F-16 fighters; the ranks of the IDF had been decimated by the findings of the Kahan Commission on Sabra and Shatila, and the army badly needed to rebuild. It is incredible that Arens managed to keep his head above water, let alone find the time to evolve policy.

Arens has amply displayed that he is a man of principle. He voted against the Camp David accords, despite a call for coalition unity from Menachem Begin, and refused an offer to become defense minister after Ezer Weizman’s resignation, in 1980, because he was “not prepared to serve in a government that has decided to give up all of Sinai,” as he said at the time.

But he is also a pragmatist, as the latest agreement in Lebanon has illustrated. He came out against the Israeli government’s flat rejection of both the Fez proposal and the Reagan proposal for peace in the Middle East, and is known to support a continued American dialogue with the moderate Arab world. Such a dialogue is essential if war is to be prevented, and essential if Israel is to find America on its side in time of war.

He is a man who has a maximalist ideology, but understands that compromise, at least as a tactical exercise, is essential if the dream of a Greater Israel is ever to be realized. It is in the belief that policy goals are best attained through debate rather than with the sword that Arens differs so profoundly from Sharon. But only to a point. For Arens also believes in that old Hebrew maxim: Rather the sword in my hand than at my throat.

—Hirsh Goodman