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Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

Moshe Arens, In Defense of Israel

Filed under: Israel, The Middle East
Publication: Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review
Volume 29, Numbers 3–4

Moshe Arens, In Defense of Israel. Brookings Institution Press, 2018, 216 pp.

Moshe Arens: Security Professional and Tough Diplomat

Moshe Arens’s memoir sums up his many years of activity on behalf of the Jewish people and the state of Israel. It should be added with respect and admiration that the work is still not finished. The 95-year-old Arens—may his days continue—remains active in the public domain and in the writing of incisive, lucid articles that appear regularly in Haaretz.

As an engineer by profession, a courtly man of complete integrity, Arens has his own unique character among other Israeli politicians. Like Abba Eban—who was also, incidentally, of Lithuanian background—Arens is to a certain extent a strange bird and a refreshing figure in the Israeli political landscape. On page 51 he indeed admits that he never had any intention to be a politician.

Unlike many, Arens firmly upholds his beliefs, and he fights impressively and uncompromisingly for his worldview. Always loyal to the Jabotinsky creed, he comports himself in exemplary fashion according to the Betar code of gentlemanly conduct.

Arens opposed the Camp David Accords, and on page 64 he tells of arguing heatedly with Menachem Begin, who stressed to him that “Sinai is not part of the Land of Israel according to the Torah and according to Chief Rabbi Goren.” Arens, for his part, maintained that Sinai was a strategic asset. Arens also opposed Ariel Sharon’s plan for disengagement from Gush Katif, and today he favors a one-state solution in which the Palestinians will be granted Israeli citizenship. He has also contributed much to the integration of the Israeli minorities and especially of the Druze community, which has forged a “blood pact” with Israel. On page 143 Arens tells how, only six weeks after he first entered the Foreign Ministry, he proposed a five-point peace plan that was ultimately rejected by Prime Minister Shamir.

Arens is indeed a conservative in outlook and does not compromise on basic principles. He is also, however, a pragmatic person who is prepared to accept original and revolutionary ideas if, in his eyes, they serve the supreme purpose of enhancing Israel’s security. That is also the reason he called the book In Defense of Israel.

The book is divided, in memoir form, into a dozen chapters along with a short introduction and an epilogue that sets forth the author’s vision of the future of the Middle East.

The introduction and the first chapter are devoted mainly to the destruction of the Jews of Riga (to which Arens’s family moved when he was a year old) and to the murder of Arens’s classmates in the Rumbula forests. He and his family survived because only six days after the German invasion of Poland, on September 7, 1939, they managed to escape from the Nazis and emigrate to America. Seventy years later Moshe Arens published an in-depth study he conducted of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. He revealed for the first time the great injustice that was done to the important role of the Jewish Military Organization founded by the Betar Movement. The study, Flags over the Warsaw Ghetto, tells of this organization’s activities during the uprising; the supreme heroism of its members was almost completely and deliberately forgotten by the Zionist establishment.

In his memoir Arens devotes all of the 12th and last chapter to the research he conducted, which also was translated into Polish. His contribution to redressing the injustice is of major significance when it comes to mending the rifts between the right and the left, which have not disappeared since before the Altalena affair. One can feel Arens’s great satisfaction at the fact that Pavel Frankel, Mordechai Anielewicz, and all the Jewish fighters who were in the ghetto hold an honored place in the collective memory of the Jewish people. It would have been a good idea to put this chapter at the beginning of the book even though the study was published in 2009.

In the first four chapters Arens evokes in simple and clear language the sharp transition that he made from Riga to New York. Throughout the book the autobiographical writing is sober and calm, using short, plain sentences, sometimes without a trace of emotion or humor. Also lacking are more anecdotes, which could have enriched the book and made it more engaging to the general public.

The personal chapters of Arens’s life include his studies at the local George Washington School, his service in the engineering corps of the U.S. army, and his studies of mechanical engineering at MIT and later at Caltech where he specialized in aeronautical engineering.

Arens devotes a full chapter to his professional expertise, which is very close to his heart. He takes greater pleasure in his profession, and esteems it more, than his political work. He tells at length about being an associate professor at the Technion and, later, deputy director-general of Israeli Aircraft Industries for nine years. He was, of course, hugely disappointed over the cancellation of the Lavi aircraft project. In order to bolster his arguments it would have been well for Arens to include the Lavi affair in the chapter “Engineer,” or to set it aside for a full chapter, and not just include it in the political chapter on the National Unity Government in which he details the reasons for the closing of the project. When writing and editing memoirs, it always makes it easier for the reader if the events are presented chronologically.

Arens’s activity in Betar gave shape to his youth and influenced his initial steps in politics. In September 1948, a few months after the declaration of statehood and the outbreak of the War of Independence, Arens was sent to take part in Betar’s endeavors in Europe, where it was based in Paris under the leadership of Eli Tavon and his friends. Arens also served briefly as an emissary to northern Africa where he helped the local Jews defend themselves against Arab pogroms. In Algiers and in Casablanca he tried unsuccessfully to set up a Betar cell and quickly despaired. On page 28 he says he merely “wasted his time there.” One must ask: What about adherence to the goal? Arens returned to Israel and settled in Moshav Ramat Raziel with a group of Betar graduates from America, and there he also met his future wife, Muriel Eisenberg.  

Throughout the book Arens manifests a certain bitterness over the attitude of the Israeli left, and particularly of the establishment of that period, toward the members of the Israeli right. Worth noting here are the sharp conflict between Begin and Ben-Gurion, the disputes over credit for the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, the Altalena affair, and the discriminatory appointments in the public sector. Arens relates that he declined to join the Herut Knesset faction because the then chief of staff, Tzvi Tzur, had offered him a post as head of the Israel Atomic Energy Commission (IAEC). He was disappointed when, in the end, he did not get the appointment because of the opposition of the then foreign minister, Golda Meir. On page 52 he remarks: “She indeed did not know me personally but knew about my activity in political organizations.” This opposition of Meir’s may have been what changed the course of Arens’s life; she may have impelled him to enter politics and the Herut Party out of necessity.

With Begin’s victory in the 1977 elections Arens hoped to be appointed a senior minister, but he was again disappointed when Begin preferred to add to his government another member of the party, David Levy. On page 58 he writes: “Begin preferred David Levy, who was of Moroccan background and a resident of the development town of Beit Shean.” On page 161 Arens says regarding Yitzhak Shamir’s appointment of Levy as foreign minister: “I do not think David Levy is an appropriate choice for foreign minister.” And again on page 189 he disparages Levy by asserting that “being appointed foreign minister and deputy prime minister is not necessarily proof of credentials.” This is certainly an arrogant and inappropriate statement, redolent of the conflict between the two of them and also of Levy’s infamous “monkeys speech” in which he claimed he was discriminated against because of his background. At the same time, it is clear in retrospect that Levy—who, though not fluent in English like Arens, was fluent in French—was also an autodidact with a sober perspective that sometimes prevented rash governmental decisions and also helped diplomatically resolve several crises, including with the United States.

Arens, who was a very close associate of Shamir’s and together with him formed a single camp in the Likud, saw Levy’s appointment as Shamir’s capitulation to Levy’s dictates, and this eventually led him, along with other factors, to resign from the government. Also worth recalling in this context is Levy’s insistence on Ariel Sharon’s appointment as a minister by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

A few years into his political career, Arens was appointed chairman of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. It was a career of complex and important political activity spanning from 1973 to 2003, in which he served as a member of Knesset, ambassador to the United States, foreign minister, minister without portfolio for minority affairs, and as defense minister in three nonconsecutive tenures.

Moshe Arens’s story as an outstanding political leader is intertwined with events and episodes of Israeli history. He served in seven governments and was one of the decision-makers on such issues as the First Intifada, the First Gulf War, the Bus 300 affair, the first withdrawal from Lebanon, exchanges of terrorists and prisoners, the Pollard affair, and many other events and fateful actions about which he had to decide soberly and judiciously.

Arens served as ambassador to the United States during a period of crisis between the two countries. He reveals that, in an effort to avoid bugs and leaks, he conducted a correspondence in codes with Prime Minister Begin. When the conclusions of the Kahan Commission on failures during the First Lebanon War were published, Sharon resigned as defense minister and Arens was surprised to be given the post immediately. He says he urgently had to leave the Washington embassy in the hands of his deputy, Benjamin Netanyahu. On page 91 he writes: “He did excellent work and I recommended to Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir that they appoint him ambassador in my place. They thought he was too young and lacked sufficient experience to fill such an important post in Israeli diplomacy. I did not agree with their view and they proposed Meir Rosenne, who was undoubtedly a good choice.” Later Arens notes that many say it was because of him that Netanyahu managed to become prime minister as soon as 1996, and that some still see him as Netanyahu’s “patron.” Arens remarks: “It is clear that Netanyahu’s great credentials and abilities would have made him a leading political figure in Israel even if I had not appointed him a member of the embassy staff in 1982.”

On the book cover Prime Minister Netanyahu writes, among other things: “The autobiography is clear, profound, and credible. It well reflects the modest man who devoted his whole life to security, to the Jewish people, and to the Jewish state. This is an important book.”

This is indeed an important book that recounts the career of a Jewish aeronautical engineer who was born in Lithuania, grew up and studied in the United States and served in its army, and eventually became a diplomat, politician, and an honored and admired figure of the Israeli defense establishment.

Without a doubt this is an engrossing book and a must-read.