25 December '15..
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon, former Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Israeli Air Force commanders past and present came together this week to celebrate former Defense Minister Moshe Arens' 90th birthday.
An aeronautics professor who held key positions in the Israel Aerospace Industry, a three-time defense minister, foreign minister, ambassador and Israel Defense Prize laureate, Arens, a lifelong Likud member, was the first Israeli official dubbed "Mr. Security."
At 90, Arens has a unique perspective on life, politics and Israel's future.
When looking to Israel's future, one must also look at its past, he says.
"And looking back we've made amazing progress," he says.
"The State of Israel was a country fighting for its life, a poor country, budgeting for every citizen. Today Israel is very strong militarily, and economically it's a rich country. That's nothing to be ashamed of. We're a high-tech state with robust exports.
"Between the  War of Independence and the  Yom Kippur War, we felt we were fighting for our lives. Until that glorious victory [in 1973] we were under the constant threat of an attack by an Arab coalition, and we needed 48 hours to call up the reserves and counter the attack. This threat no longer exists. The Arab armies are deterred. Some of them no longer exist, and we have peaceful relations with Egypt and Jordan, including close defense ties. No one can predict the future, but if we look at where we were and where we are today, there's definitely reason to be optimistic."
Q: Given the Iranian nuclear threat, has the existential threat looming over Israel vanished?
"The Iranian nuclear program is such that in principle, there is still a viable existential threat. If we are attacked by an atomic bomb -- one is all you need. The Iranians are not there yet, but they aspire to get there.
"But even if they have a bomb, I doubt they will use it. I would say that the immediate danger looming over our heads between War of Independence and the first few days of the Yom Kippur War is gone. There are other threats now, and we can deal with the Iranians if we need to. We wouldn't like to have to, and it's unpleasant, but we have the capability to do it."
Asked about his take on the recent upheaval in the Middle East, Arens says, "The recent changes in the Middle East are a tragedy for the Arab world. As far as Israel is concerned, as far as the threat outline, the situation has improved. Beyond our borders, however, it's chaos. The Islamic State group is in Sinai, Syria and Iraq. Anarchy also means we have no one to talk to over there, which is also a drawback. So the bottom line is that while we are not under grave threat, one does exist. But overall, our situation has improved."
Always an optimist
Arens was a key figure in the early days of the Israel Aerospace Industries and Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, and helped found the prestigious Faculty of Aerospace Engineering at the Israel Institute of Technology.
"The first thing we ever developed was the Gabriel missiles, which wreaked havoc on the Syrian and Egyptian navies in the first two days of the Yom Kippur War," he recalls, referring to a series of anti-ship missiles developed by the IAI in 1967.
Arens was part of numerous groundbreaking military and defense developments, some of which earned him the 1971 Israel Defense Prize. During the interview, he also addresses what he still calls the "missed opportunity of a lifetime" -- the Lavi project,
The Lavi was an advanced single-engine fighter jet developed in the 1980s. The jet was designed to be the IAF's mainstay, but the project's enormous costs rendered it highly controversial from its early beginnings, and also earned criticism from the U.S., as it would have posed competition to American jets on the export market. Two prototypes were developed while the political and public debates over the project raged on, until it was officially dropped in 1987.
"The Lavi would have been the best fighter jet in the world. I was eventually able to get the Americans to support and fund the project. It was our own people who had it shelved, because of the unity government we had at the time. [Then-defense minister] Yitzhak Rabin didn't want to advance the project, and [then-foreign minister] Shimon Peres forced the vote [on the project's cancellation], which passed with a majority of one vote. I said it was a mistake. Today, in hindsight, it's clear it was a mistake," he said.
He still hopes someone at IAI will come to his senses and resurrect the project, perhaps as part of the defense collaboration between Israel and India.
December has seen two successful tests for air defense systems, the first for the Arrow 3 ballistic missile defense system, and the second for David's Sling, designed to intercept medium- to long-range rockets and cruise missiles fired from ranges of 40 kilometers (25 miles) to 300 kilometers (190 miles).
Arens notes that both projects, which are part of Israel's multi-tiered air defense, were undertaken despite political objections.
"We have very high technological abilities. Engineers have always thought that intercepting a target in mid-flight was possible, but the [Israeli] defense industries proved we knew how to do it. Not to say that we're the only ones who can do it, but today we are definitely the most advanced in the field. The first evidence of that was the Lavi, and then we demonstrated our abilities with David's Sling and the Arrow and, of course, with Iron Dome," he says, referring to Israel's high-performance rockets and artillery interceptor system.
"There are many talented people here. Today it'd taken for granted, but we didn't have this 50 years ago. In fact, the development of weapons systems met with substantial reluctance and opposition. Decision-makers didn't believe Israel would be able to muster up the same development skills they had in the Soviet Union and the U.S. You could see it during the Lavi project -- Rabin and Peres had no faith in it, and neither did the top echelon of the military. They thought we should acquire arms overseas to save money. You could see the same doubts in the attempts to stop [the development of] Iron Dome."
Today, he notes, "No one doubts our abilities. We can develop anything, and that's not going to go away. Israel has the best human capital, the best schools and academic institutions. And we also have the best school in this [defense] field -- the IDF. People only think of the military in terms of defense forces, but that is where young men and women learn determination, motivation, and in many areas, that's where they develop their skill-set. Our cyber capabilities, for example, are based on what young people learn during their military service.
"The IDF is designed to defend the country, and it carries out its mission while at the same time educating the next generation. This blend of natural talent and continuous education is what makes Israel a technological powerhouse."
Always a pragmatist
In 2010 Arens, who is a contributing writer for Haaretz, published an opinion piece in support of the "greater Israel" vision, a state whose sovereignty encompasses all of Judea and Samaria, where Palestinians would be given Israeli citizenship.
"Looking at the Palestinian issue you have four options," he explains. "The first option is to continue the negotiations, which don't seem to be going anywhere. The second option is to reach some sort of agreement with Jordan, by which it assumes the representation of the Palestinians. It is only natural, since 70% of Jordan's residents are Palestinians, but Jordan isn't interested in that. The third option is that we annex Judea and Samaria and they [the Palestinians] become citizens, and the fourth option is to leave things as they are, which is the situation on the ground today."
The one-state option is only viable if Israel comes to the conclusion that the peace process is over, Arens says. "I don't support the notion of a Palestinian state, and certainly not the notion of uprooting Jewish communities. You ask if I think the land is sacred? Yes, the land is sacred.
"I think the Jewish people have a very deep connection with the Land of Israel, and not only in the context of the 1949 armistice lines. That's all they are -- cease-fire lines. Our connection to Israel runs through to the Jordan River. When it comes to cutting out the heart of the biblical Land of Israel, I don't want to do it. Other solutions must be devised."
Arens knows finding such solutions would be difficult. "It remains to be seen how we can realize our connection [to the land]. True, there's a demographic issue that some tend to overstate, but I'm not one of those people who say, 'We don't want more Arabs here.' Arabs make up 20% of Israel's population today, and it won't be tragic if they grow to make up 30%. I'm sure the Palestinians would rather live in Israel, a nation of law and order, where they would be afforded economic opportunities, freedom and healthcare, than live under Hamas rule."
But what about the state's Jewish identity? While Arens remains unsure about the feasibility of a binational state, he is sure that the notion of a Palestinian autonomy has proven inapplicable.
"In terms of our connection with the land, we want to see Judea and Samaria as part of the State of Israel. Having made that clear, we need to ask ourselves, how big can the Arab population be without jeopardizing Israel's Jewish character? In my view, the test lies in a situation where there is a Knesset majority seeking to repeal the Law of Return. I would say that is the red line that cannot be crossed. As long as the law stands it means, in my opinion, that the primary objective we had in mind upon the inception of the Jewish state, to be a safe haven for all Jews seeking refuge, still stands."
To properly gauge the situation, he explains, "We need to look at the Israelization and westernization processes the Arab population is undergoing. Look at what has happened with Druze and Christian Arabs. What has happened with Israeli Arabs. They're also Palestinian, but there's a process of integration. Is it successful? Where does it say that every Arab always has to be an enemy of Israel and that they will never accept the Jewish presence here?"
Not to disregard the Palestinian desire for self-determination, Arens maintains that "the notion of an autonomy is inapplicable, it's ill-suited for the 21st century, certainly in the democratic world. Telling people, 'You run your school system, but you have no say over your fate in this county.' I don't know of anywhere in the world where such a situation exists."
Always a realist
Arens is credited as the man who "discovered" Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, appointing him Israeli envoy to Washington, a position Netanyahu held from1982 to 1984, and which led to his appointment as Israel's ambassador to the U.N. in 1984.
"Whenever I attend an event, people always tell me, 'You brought Bibi [into politics], now explain his actions.' I may have given him his first [diplomatic] appointment, but he accomplished everything else on his own," he says.
Arens believes that "as far as the Israeli public is concerned, the majority doesn't see an alternative to Netanyahu. Not in the Left, either. He is, after all, in his fourth term in office. Whenever I point this out someone always says, 'anyone but Bibi,' to Which I say, Israel It too precious for us to say, 'anyone can do this [the prime minister's] job.
"To Netanyahu's credit, there are over 8 million people in Israel, talented and smart people, some of whom are immensely successful, and yet it seems there is no alternative to him. He is the most suited man for the job. I know his detractors find that difficult to accept, but even they -- after taking a few deep breaths, maybe drinking some water -- will admit as much."
There were some who, during the 2015 election campaign, touted [Zionist Union leader MK Isaac] Herzog as an alternative to Netanyahu, Arens says, "But today everyone knows that Herzog is not an alternative so there is no need for words."
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