Farewell to Moshe Arens, the Liberal One-state Ideologue

Moshe Arens’ voice was unique, insistent and unsuited to the talking points of Likud and Netanyahu

Moshe Arens, then defense minister, on Army Radio.
IDF Spokesperson's Unit

Moshe Arens met over the autumn with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who began his career as Arens’ political protégé. Arens told his host excitedly about the taxi driver who had just brought him to their meeting and had remarked, “We have a fantastic country.”

Netanyahu used the driver’s words in his “sourpusses speech” several days later at the opening of the Knesset session, using him as an example of how the majority of the public backed his leadership. Arens had left the meeting less enthusiastic, having just sat with the man who had been his deputy at the embassy in Washington and at the Foreign Ministry. His impression was that Netanyahu had been in office for too long, and that it showed.

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In the last year Arens had criticized Netanyahu’s conduct during the investigations against him, saying that accepting gifts (the charge against him in Case 1000) was unseemly for a public figure. Arens advised him not to attack the defenders of the law “despite the temptation to do so.” Netanyahu, who called the former defense and foreign minister his “beloved teacher and friend,” did not heed his advice. But despite his reservations about Netanyahu’s conduct, and his sense that the premier had held power for too long, Arens had considerable esteem for Netanyahu’s talents as a diplomat and speaker, and warned against bringing him down over the investigations. In an article in March titled “Netanyahu among the Lilliputians,” he wrote that if the prime minister were forced to resign, “it will be difficult to find a replacement of his caliber.”

File photo: Moshe Arens giving a speech on the Lavi project at the Dan hotel, Tel Aviv, May 15, 1983.
Nati Harnik/GPO
Anshel Pfeffer pays his respects to Moshe ArensHaaretz

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This dualistic approach toward Netanyahu was characteristic of Arens, who loved above all to be surprising and original, and hated to be predictable or pigeonholed. The military valued him as a defense minister with a civilian background who challenged the generals and acted with authority. He enjoyed telling the story about the first briefing he received from the intelligence branch about Syria, when he took office in 1983. The officers showed him, as they do, frightening statistics about the strength of the army on the other side of the “iron curtain” in the Golan Heights. Arens cut them off: “Do you know what the Syrian defense budget is?” His embarrassed interlocutors admitted they had no idea. He sent them to do their homework, which showed how weak Syria was compared to Israel, even during a period when the Israeli economy was hobbled by hyperinflation.

Arens did not take part in ambushes or military operations like his old rivals, Ariel Sharon and Yitzhak Rabin. He didn’t eat from the generals’ mess kits nor did he know to ask micro-tactical questions of field commanders, but as the civilian defense chief, he imposed the most far-reaching organizational changes ever made by the IDF: the establishment of the ground forces command, a missile defense system, a home front command and a special tactics division. He dug deep when it came to technical discussions about planes and missiles, about which he was well-versed. He had special esteem for reserve Maj. Gen. Israel Tal, the initiator of the Merkava tank, who combined military knowhow, a love of technology and a suspicion of the air force. After the 1991 Gulf War, in which Israel was attacked by dozens of Scuds, “Talik” and Arens thought up the idea of establishing an offensive missile corps that could answer the ballistic threat posed by Iraq then, and by Hezbollah and Hamas today. But Arens failed to overcome the IDF’s opposition, which preferred to rely on the air force. Even the last attempt to revive a missile command, initiated by former defense minister Avigdor Lieberman, was apparently fated for the archives.

File photo: Moshe Arens and Banjamin Netanyahu during a diplomatic convention at the Foreign Ministry, Jerusalem, February 25, 2018.
Haim Zach/GPO

After his retirement from active political life, Arens joined Haaretz as a weekly columnist on the opinion page. He wrote his articles on Shabbat, always in English, and they appeared on Tuesdays. He had regular topics: The necessity of integrating Arab citizens in Israel, disappointment with the Lavi project’s cancellation, bringing to light the role of right-wing Revisionist fighters in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, warning against Hezbollah’s missile threat. In all these matters he offered a unique, insistent voice, which didn’t suit the talking points of the prime minister and Likud. Certainly not with regard to relations with Arab citizens, whom he wanted to see treated as equal Israeli citizens, which led him to oppose the nation-state law.

In his eyes, Arens’ liberal position justified his political views, which totally negated dividing the country between Israel and a Palestinian state. Arens’ political legacy, aside from launching Netanyahu’s career, will be remembered as an ideologue of a single state between the Jordan River and Mediterranean Sea. In his most important article, “Is there another option?” from June 2010, Arens called for imposing Israeli sovereignty on “Judea and Samaria” and giving Israeli citizenship to Palestinians. “Those who, in Israel and abroad, consider the Israeli ‘occupation’ of Judea and Samaria an unbearable evil should be greatly relieved by such a change that would free Israel of the burden of ‘occupation.’ If the Palestinians in Judea and Samaria are given the right to vote in Israeli elections, like the Palestinians currently living in Israel, Israel would not cease to be a democracy. Nor would it cease to exist, although its demography would change significantly,” Arens wrote.

He posed the question of how Israel would face the challenge of absorbing “a million and a half Muslims.” (Arens adopted without question the low estimate of right-wing demographers with respect to how many Palestinians live in the West Bank.) 

File photo: Moshe Arens, then defense minister, with Ehud Barak, then IDF chief of staff, during a Ground Arm Command drill in southern Israel, 1992.
IDF Spokesperson's Unit

“Unlike the dire predictions heard so often, Israeli sovereignty over Judea and Samaria would not be the end of the State of Israel, nor would it mean the end of democratic governance in Israel. It would, however, pose a serious challenge to Israeli society. But that is equally true for the other options being suggested for dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This option of Israeli sovereignty in Judea and Samaria merits serious consideration.”

No public debate has been held thus far about Arens’ proposal; the political establishment has shoved aside the conflict with the Palestinians in recent years and has for the most part adopted Netanyahu’s status-quo approach. Quietly, though, more and more people have entered the one-state camp, proposing that the political debate be moved from the “political” to the “social” arena. Instead of talking about outposts and settlers, the Temple Mount and refugees, they prefer to focus on traffic jams, the long waits for treatment in hospital units and the failures of the education system. They have no interest in setting a border with the Palestinians; the idea bores them and seems hopeless and worthless. Most of them are apparently unaware of this, but the stronger their position becomes, the more they will be adopting the political legacy of the last of the Beitar activists: Equality before peace.