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Moshe Arens' vision of Israel: An MEE interview

Moshe Arens talks to Middle East Eye about the election, his belief that Benyamin Netanyahu will be re-elected, and his vision for Israel
Former Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Arens (L) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a defence ministry press conference 28 February, 1999

Moshe Arens, a Likud stalwart, has served as minister of defence three times, and minister of foreign affairs. He was Israel's ambassador to Washington under Reagan. He talks to Middle East Eye about the election, his belief that Benyamin Netanyahu will be reelected, and his vision for the future of Israel.

MEE : What will the election come down to, economic or security issues?

MA: I think it’s going to be very personal. That’s my impression. But you’re talking to the wrong guy because I’m Likud and I will vote Netanyahu. But that’s the way I see it coming from the left.

MEE: How do you think Netanyahu has actually performed?

MA: On the whole, I think he’s done okay. Listen, just on the fact that he’s already rivalling Ben Gurion in the length of his tenure as prime minister, he’s come a long way.

MEE: But he hasn’t delivered security...

MA: On the whole, if you look at the time spent that he’s been prime minister, which I guess is what, over six years, the country has developed. The country is stronger. The country is better off. The country is prosperous. On the whole, it’s gone forward, it’s progressed. You just look at the skyline over there. You don’t need to see anything else.

MEE: Do you think a government will be formed between Likud and more right-wing parties? What do you sense will happen without Livni and without Lapid?

MA: The instability of the Israeli political scene is due to the fact that, whereas in the past we had two large parties - Labour and Likud - we now have a whole collection of medium- and small-sized parties. So forming a coalition under the circumstances is a very difficult thing to balance. It’s very hard to tell what kind of coalition we are going to have because under any circumstances, I don’t think any party - whether it’s Labour or Likud or any of the other contenders - will get to the point where they will have 40 members of the Knesset and have a solid anchor from which they can move the coalition. So it looks like whoever is going to form the coalition will start with 20-something members and they’ll have to try to assemble something that will bring them to 61-plus.

MEE: Because the current coalition doesn’t have religious parties?

MA: Does not have, because Lapid – Yesh Atid party – insisted that he didn’t want the religious in the party. He made a big to-do about having the ultra orthodox – not just religious – do army service and he knew he wasn’t going to get that through with the ultra-orthodox in the coalition so that was his condition for joining the coalition. So it was a coalition without the ultra-orthodox.

MEE: If Netanyahu manages to form another coalition, what direction do you think Israel will be taking on the bigger question of security? You’ve argued against the peace process.

MA: I’m not against peace, but I’m very averse to Israel taking big risks.

MEE: What direction do you think Israel will go in with that sort of coalition?

MA: I’m trying to separate between where I wish they will go and where I think they will go.

MEE: You could answer both.

MA: I think in one sentence probably more of the same.

MEE: Where would you like Israel to go?

MA: I think that big efforts will be made to integrate Israel’s Arab citizens into the fabric of the Israeli society and the Israeli economy. In my mind, that’s really the key to any further progress to do with the Palestinians beyond Israel’s borders. So whether the future government will do that, I don’t know.

MEE: They are less likely to, aren’t they?

MA: No, I don’t think they are less likely to. A Labour government won’t do that either. Maybe that whole discussion about the Jewish state law, maybe will bring them around to realising that’s the thing they have to focus on.

MEE: You’ve criticised that law.

MA: I’m against it. I think it hurts the feelings of Israel’s Arab minorities and we don’t want to do that. We want to do the opposite. We want to draw them in. We want to integrate them. So what’s the point in sticking a finger in their eye?

MEE: But if we talk about the Arab minority in Israel, efforts to integrate them have all failed, haven’t they? They are feeling more and more Palestinian as time goes on.

MA: I don’t think so. There is a great deal of integration going on. In the Israeli economy, you look at the pharmacy here – it is owned by an Israeli Arab citizen. Wherever you go today in the stores, the online services, the answering services, lots of young Arabs. Lots of volunteering for national service in the Israeli-Arab youth. There is more volunteering in the past for service in the IDF [Israeli army], so there is a lot going on. This is one reason that I was upset about this law because I thought it might bring about a reversal of a trend that has been in my view very positive.

MEE: And yet if you look at the equality of Jewish and non-Jewish citizens, there is a whole raft of legislation which is discriminatory. For instance, to be an Arab citizen of Israel means that you do not have in practice the same rights to own land and build on it, to decide where to live. This is well documented, or do you dispute that?

MA: You read the Jerusalem post? They had an article about 90 Arabs moving into Jewish neighbourhoods in Jerusalem. It’s in the paper today. An Arab could live here in Savyon, if the man who owns a pharmacy would like to buy a house here, no problem.

MEE: So you don’t recognise that?

MA: No, no. What you do have is different cultures and therefore a tendency on the part of many Arabs and some Jews as well for an insular-type existence, a preference to live in an Arab village. But today there are a number of mixed towns – Haifa, Lod, Ramle – where you have Jews and Arabs living together. And there are more and more that will come. And when it comes to voting, voting is the same. The vote of a Jewish citizen is the same as an Arab.

MEE: But you think the law applies equally to Jews and non-Jews in terms of land rights?

MA: What you have is have equal rights, you don’t have equal obligations. Not all Arab citizens have the same obligation, namely defending the country. That’s important and it needs to be corrected. Part of the integration is also taking it on themselves the burden, if you will, or the obligation to defend their country. Now the Jews do that. Today, we have more of a tendency amongst the Christian Arabs to volunteer for service. They are not obligated to. And maybe it will come with the Muslims as well. I think it’s an inevitable trend unless we really do the wrong things to get them to feel alienated, and hostile and not belonging. But we’ve been moving in the right direction far too slowly mind you.

You asked what the next cabinet should do. They should really give this a priority but we are really moving in that direction. It’s inevitable because Israel’s Arab citizens, I mean, they are human beings like you and me, they look around the area and they see what is happening in Syria, in Iraq or even Jordan, which is a country that has peace with Israel, or Egypt, a country that has peace with Israel, and they realise the tremendous efforts that create the conditions in Israel and all around. And to some extent, I think this is true for the Palestinians in Judea and Samaria [the West Bank] as well. They are very concerned, I am sure, if Israel were to leave the area. That might not be good news at all.

MEE: How do you envisage a peace that involves the West Bank as well, if your preference is for a one-state solution?

MA: We don’t have any solutions. At the moment, this is a problem that has no solutions and you have to recognise the fact that the conflict we are discussing is a three-dimensional conflict. It’s not just Jews vs Palestinians. It’s also Arabs vs Jews. It’s also Muslims vs Jews and when you realise the full scope of this conflict, it’s pretty clear especially looking at the environment in the Middle East, especially lately in the last couple of years, that it’s pretty intractable. So the best that you should hope for is to take some small steps that will make life easier for the people living here. So hopefully, the next cabinet will do a lot about making conditions easier for the Palestinians living in Judea and Samaria.

I was against that separation fence for many reasons, but one reason is that it makes life very difficult for the Palestinians living near that fence. There is a lot that can be done. Living conditions for the Palestinians living in Judea and Samaria are probably I think no doubt better than the living conditions of Arab populations living in any of the other countries in the area. From the Israeli point view or for an Arab living in Israel, it is not enough because we measure it by the living standards in Israel. Israel is an advanced country, it’s a prosperous country. It’s a country that offers a lot of opportunities to its citizens, Jews and Arabs alike. You today have Israeli Arabs in prominent law firms in Israel. You have Israeli Arabs working in big contractors in the building industry, in academic life. So when you start comparing it to Jews...

So you see, if you think back, it all started with a war for life and death and for survival, that started 66 years ago in 1948, between Jews and Arabs, and you see how far we’ve come. We’ve come a long way and I think more Israeli Arabs realise that. You’ve got the fanatic Muslims, you’ve got the northern branch of the Islamic League. They don’t care about the standard of living. They don’t care about the opportunities of Israel. They want the Jews out of here. So that kind of fanaticism is not just a problem for Israel. It’s a problem for the entire world.

MEE: Do you support the siege of Gaza?

MA: I think Gaza is such a tremendous humanitarian problem, it's way beyond Israel’s capability to do anything significant about. It’s a world problem, but the world doesn’t want to do anything about it. That the world has packed them like sardines in a tiny piece of territory run by a fanatic Islamic group, run by a fanatic group like Hamas. Unless the world decides it wants to tackle this problem, that they want to deal with refugees there, prepare to absorb some of the refugees...

MEE: Isn’t there a key difference between political Islam – Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas – and Takfiri Islam and the Islamic State? Aren’t they enemies of each other? You argued in one article that there was a genetic disposition of Hamas and Hezbollah to push all of the Jews into the sea, but isn’t there a fundamental difference between political Islam and IS?

MA: I’m not sure at all. I think they believe this whole area should be an Islamic State.

MEE: One believes in elections, the other cuts people’s heads off.

MA: Who believes in elections?

MEE: The Brotherhood does.

MA: The Muslim Brotherhood believes in elections? Well, yeah, the one they won, after that there won’t be elections. I think people in Egypt realise that.

MEE: That’s a matter of opinion. Successive polls by the Washington Institute, by Zogby, say that if there were free elections in the Gulf States about 30 percent would vote for Islamist, either Salafis or the Brotherhood. The choice is not between the West Bank and Hamas, but between Hamas and IS. You can choose between a rational enemy or an irrational one.

MA: Well I haven’t seen any free elections in the Arab world. They may be coming someday, except for in Israel. In Israel, Arabs have a chance to participate in free elections. Nowhere else really.

MEE: Isn’t it in Israel’s interests to support free elections in the Arab world rather than dictators?

MA: In principle yes. But if you ask any Israeli, do they prefer the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt which won an election or the rule of General [Abdel Fattah al-]Sisi, who took power, I think almost all of them would say Sisi, even Israeli Arabs.

MEE: Even though unarmed civilians in Egypt were gunned down and there were huge human rights offences?

MA: Well, everybody looks out for himself. And general Sisi fights terrorism. And General Sisi fights Hamas. From Israel’s point of view, he is fighting people that are our enemies. He is trying to clear up the Sinai which could be a big danger to Israel. So people say, good, the Muslim Brotherhood wasn’t ready to do that. And the Muslim Brotherhood would have made sure that there would be no more elections and I think people realise that too. It was a one-time electoral victory.

MEE: So you don’t see Hamas as a partner to talk to?

MA: Hamas doesn’t want to talk to us. Hamas believes in eliminating the state of Israel so what’s there to talk about?

MEE: There’s quite a lot to talk about.

MA: A lot to talk about with someone who wants to eliminate us? What are we going to talk about? How are we going to eliminate us?

MEE: No, because they can’t eliminate you.

MA: They can. They would like to. So look. These fanatic groups have very long planning horizons. That’s one difference you know, in the approach of the problems we face. They lose a battle. They haven’t lost the war. It takes 500 years, it's okay too. Finally the Jews are going to get out. I think that’s their thinking. I can understand their thinking. It’s not even correct to say it's not rational. It’s a certain worldview, a messianic-type worldview and it’s the view of Hamas and it’s the view of IS.

MEE: Do you think there is going to be a Palestinian state ?

MA: I don’t think so.

MEE: Would you prefer one?

MA: I can’t foretell the future.

MEE: Have you argued for it in the past?

MA: Never. I think if Israel was to leave Judea and Samaria, we would have another Gaza. Probably have Hamas take over, with rockets on Tel Aviv. It’s almost the inevitable development. It would not be good for the people living there either.

MEE: We are 15-minute drive from Qalqiliya. And yet it’s a world away from where we are talking now in Savyon village near Tel Aviv. How do you reconcile those differences if you are all going to live side by side in peace with each other?  

MA: How do you reconcile the lifestyle between the United States and Mexico? One is a very prosperous country, the other one is somewhat backwards. I mean, I don’t want to denigrate them. And people want to go from Mexico into the US because it’s much better there. Mexicans also have a grudge against the US. Most of the Western US was Mexican territory once, but they prefer to being in the US, not Mexico.

And if Israel were to open its borders, it would be flooded. Not just by Palestinians, but from Arabs from the entire area. We have people from Sudan and Eritrea who are ready to [travel] 1,000 kilometres through the desert and undergoing all kinds of dangers just to get here because they know this is a prosperous country and you make a living here. And they are far better off here than they are there. This is characterising the world today. There are affluent countries, prosperous countries and countries that live in poverty and how do you equate the two, how do you bridge the tremendous gaps that exist? Well, that’s to do of course with institutions, with philosophy of life, the progress, the Arab world has fallen behind hundreds of years and that may be one reason why there is this anger and this hostility towards those who have succeeded. It will change, but it is going to take a long time.

MEE: The demography of East Jerusalem is changing. And that pushes the East Jerusalemites, the new identity card holders, to feeling: it's them or us.

MA: I’m a settler and all of the Jews here are settlers. People living here are settlers. They came to settle the land of Israel. Our ancestors lived in this country. We were settlers because we were away for about 2,000 years and we’ve come back. But a poll was taken among Arabs in East Jerusalem for whether if a Palestinian state was established, they would prefer to be in the Palestinian state or Israel. The majority said Israel because they also understand that it’s a land where the law prevails, it’s a land with opportunities. It’s a land where the standard of living is higher. They didn’t all say that. The majority say that. So you may have here a race between a people who are motivated completely by their religious ideology or by nationalist ideology or by people who look at the world in a wider view and understand there is more than national or political rivalry. The standard of living, there are opportunities, what will happen to your children, where will they go from here and that’s true for Arabs as well as Jews.

MEE: At some point to achieve stability or equality or peace, doesn’t one have to redefine Zionism, redefine a Jewish-majority state, and stop thinking of this as a zero-sum game?

MA: I don’t think so. There is a limit to what we can do and what we can undertake. You know how difficult it was – although it’s an entirely different context - for West Germany to absorb East Germany? The tremendous economic challenge, it took years to overcome that. People say that if the Koreas were re-united it might crush South Korea. We are not in a position to take on Gaza for example. With Judea and Samaria, I say maybe. In principle it's something that could be done, so that the majority of people there would feel good about it. The majority of Israeli Arabs feel that this is their home and that it's better to be here than to be in Syria or Iraq, or in the Sinai. I think the world is moving in that direction. The reason why we have had a chance to do this is that the Jewish people who came to Israel are a very dynamic people, very entreprising people and out of the desert they have created a modern, advanced economy. But I think we have to be cautious and say that there is a limit to what we can do. Gaza we can not do. It's very closeby, but there are 1.8 million Arabs there and they are destitute.

MEE: The destitution of Gaza has not exactly been helped by the siege of Gaza.

MA: The destitution of Gaza has not exactly been helped by Hamas taking over. Shooting rockets at Israel. When you have got that, you have an untenable situation. They are shooting rockets at us and we are trying to bring about advances in housing conditions. It's impossible. By the way, Gaza has not been closed off. They have always had the border open with Egypt. But they [the Egyptians] have also realised they are dealing with a very unruly group of people who are running the show over there and they don't want them in Egypt either, because you might say Egypt could solve this problem. Listen, the Arab countries have done nothing to integrate the Palestinian refugees. They are still sitting in refugee camps in Lebanon, Syria, wherever you go. UNWRA [the UN agency for Palestinian refugees] has done nothing. They have perpetuated the problem of the Palestinian refugees. So I am very angry at past Israeli governments, included the present one, that we have a refugee camp in Shufat. Forty-seven years have gone by and we have not been able to turn that into a livable neighbourhood. We were able to do this, but we have not done it. So when someone in Shufat throws incendiary bottle or rocks, that's one of the reasons.

MEE: How far will social tensions over the economy figure in this election?

MA: We have here what we have in all affluent countries in recent years, in that the gap between rich and poor is opening up. This is true in the US and Britain too. There is a high price people are prepared to pay for skills. In the age of globalisation, there is not really much difference between a high-tech worker in Israel and one in the United States. They make good money. But work opportunities for people with low skills are decreasing. And you have the people in the middle who have an affluent country and would like to lead an affluent lifestyle but find that they don't have the means to. We have those fissures as well, and demonstrations a few years ago, not by people who are really poor, and not by Israeli Arabs, but by students. On the other hand, there is no one in the political spectrum that is capable of providing a programme that would be credible in how they would fix it. There is a lot to demonstrate about, but there are no easy solutions to any of this.

MEE: You were an Israeli ambassador during the time of Reagan. What missteps have been made in the relationship between Netanyahu and Obama?

MA: The United States does not have a very good record in the Middle East. I think they have the best of intentions but I think the problem is that it's very difficult from Washington, or from Iowa or Nebraska to understand what is happening in this crazy part of the world. In some cases US diplomacy has been somewhat naive. I don't mean this as criticism. In some ways it's admirable because the United States is a country that over the years, the policies have been motivated by values, by ideals. They thought they could bring democracy to Iraq. They did not understand what was happening in Iraq and how difficult that was going to be. They were very angry at General Sisi for overthrowing the Muslim Brotherhood, but if you understand the Middle East, there is more to it than that. So the United States has made many missteps in Iraq, in Afghanistan, and in Lebanon. and also with Israel. That speech by Obama in Cairo - naive, best of intentions, putting out his hands to the Muslim World, emphasising the fact that his middle name was Hussein, and that the US is a Muslim nation, and telling the Israelis to stop the settlements. Big mistake. I am a great admirer of the United States. There is no country like it, but look. The United States can afford to make mistakes. It's a very big, very strong country. It's existence is not at stake.

MEE: Do you think Israel’s existence is at stake

MA: No. It's a very strong country. Economically, militarily, in terms of its culture and its motivation. Look the young people who went to fight in this last war. So where do you find a country in which young people are obligated to do military service and they like it?