January 21, 2019

What If Arens Had His Way?

Moshe Arens; Photo from Wikimedia Commons

Moshe Arens, who died on Jan. 7 at 93, was one of the finest politicians in Israel’s history. He served as foreign minister and several stints as defense minister in the 1980s and ’90s. He discovered and groomed current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (but don’t hold it against him). He was gentle, wise, caring and optimistic. He loved Israel, even though he was not born in Israel. Perhaps he loved it as only someone who was not born in Israel can. We last spoke three or four months ago. The topic was his idea for a book he thought about writing. 

He was a thoughtful man, and his thoughtfulness often led him in directions not in line with a party or a government of which he was a member. As news of his death saddened me, I contemplated some of these instances. While he was still involved in public life, Arens was a member of the polite yet stubborn opposition to some of Israel’s most crucial decisions. Looking back at his actions, one can imagine an alternative history for Israel. A “what if” history. I think he would appreciate such intellectual exercise. 

What if Arens had the upper hand in the late 1970s, when he was part of a small faction opposing the peace agreement with Egypt? He never retracted his opposition to the Camp David Accords. Yes, he would say, peace with Egypt has its many advantages. And yet Arens believed that Israel’s decision to hand back all of Sinai to the Egyptians, to the last mile, was a strategic mistake that still haunts Israel. It was a precedent from which Israel can’t quite release itself. If Egypt got back the territory, why not Syria in the Golan Heights? Why not the 1967 line in the West Bank? Arens believed that Egypt didn’t have many cards at that time — that then-Egyptian President Anwar Sadat couldn’t initiate another war if his maximalist demands were not met. He voted no. What if?

More than a decade later, Arens demanded action but was rebuffed by his boss, Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir. On Jan. 7, when veteran politicians reminisced about their relations with Arens, Aryeh Deri, the leader of the Sephardic-Charedi party Shas, said they were shouting at each other. Arens? Shouting? Apparently, this well-mannered man could do that when the stakes were high. And in the early ’90s, the stakes were high. The United States just launched operation Desert Storm against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, and missiles were raining on Israel from the skies. 

“Moshe Arens believed that Israel’s decision to hand back all of Sinai to the Egyptians was a strategic mistake that still haunts Israel.”

But there was a problem: The United States was leading a well-forged coalition of many nations —  including Arab nations — against Iraq. And its leaders — President George H.W. Bush, Secretary of State James Baker and Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney — wanted Israel to sit out this one, so as not to hand the Arabs a reason or an excuse to abandon the coalition. In other words: Israel was asked to get beaten up by the bully – Iraq – and do nothing. 

This was not an easy request to swallow. Israel is not used to letting its neighbors attack it without paying a price. It is not used to letting others (the coalition) guarantee its security. Arens believed that Israel should act. Last year, a recording of an interview with then-Chief-of-Staff Gen. Dan Shomron was released in which Shomron describes how Arens — then the defense minister — approved a plan of attack. Arens didn’t realized that Shomron merely intended this to be a presentation of what Israel could do, not of what Israel ought do. Arens hurriedly called Cheney to warn that Israel was about to send in the air force. But in the cabinet meeting, the Israel Defense Forces took the the Americans’ side, and Arens, with several other ministers, remained in the minority.

Would the international coalition against Iraq collapse? Arens believed until his last day that Secretary of State James Baker was bluffing, and that the coalition would have survived an Israeli counterattack. Could Israel launch a successful operation against the scud missile launchers in western Iraq? Many military analysts have doubts. Was an Israeli response essential to maintaining its deterrence against Arab belligerents? It’s impossible to know. 

What if? Arens insisted that his positions concerning Egypt and Iraq stand the test of time, but didn’t waste his days rehashing past debates. When he celebrated his 90th birthday, he said that all his dreams came true. As I mourn his passing, I envy his peace of mind.