February 11, 2007
EXCLUSIVE: Q&A with Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Arens
Following a career as Israelâs ambassador to the United States in the 1980s and as Israeli defense minister in three separate governments, Moshe Arens left politics to serve as the chairman of the board of governors at the âCollege of Judea and Samaria,â located in the West Bank city of Ariel. Arens belongs to the shrinking group of Israeli leaders who helped shape the landscape of Israeli politics from the nationâs inception. Arens, long a stalwart in the Likud party, shared his views about the recent elections, Israelâs future security and his current work at the college.
What surprised you about the recent electionâs outcome?
I guess everyone was surprised by the Pensioners [party] who during the beginning of the campaign were not given a chance of passing the threshold. They finally succeeded in getting seven members of the Knesset elected. Other than that I think most people were disappointed with the results.
The Likud party that you helped create, along with former Prime Minister Menachem Begin, came in fourth with only 12 seats. Why do you think the party lost the confidence of voters after so many years of prominence?
The major reason was because the man who was the chairman of the party, Ariel Sharon, turned his back on the party and on the principles that the party stood for. He formed a rival party, took with him quite a number of leading people in the Likud. So any party that would be able survive that kind of catastrophe I think would be the exception not the rule.
How does the reality of winning the campaign differ from the reality of resolving issues with the Palestinians?
Ehud Olmert is going to be the man who leads the new government. Before the elections he declared that he intended to forcibly evacuate about 100,000 [settlers] from Judea and Samaria and turn the area over to the [Palestinian Authority]. Whether heâs actually going to do that or not, whether heâll be able to do it, or wants to do it, that is a part of the question mark. This was announced at the start of the election campaign and at the time some of the polls said he might get close to 40 seats in the Knesset, which would give him the strength to carry out that kind of program. But with 29 seats [for Olmertâs Kadima party], itâs not really likely.
What do you see as the future of the settlement cities like Ariel, which includes the College of Judea and Samaria, for which you chair the board of governors?
I can only quote what was said by Olmert during the election campaign. He insisted that he foresaw a number of settlements, including Ariel, as being a part and parcel of the State of Israel. He visited the city of Ariel during the election campaign, met with the people here and he assured them that the area would be part and parcel of the State of Israel in the years to come.
Prominent Iranian Jewish leader Parviz Nazarian and his organization âCitizensâ Empowerment Center in Israelâ have begun a campaign in Israel to bring about a national referendum to change Israelâs government from a parliamentary system to one that is more American style. What are your views on this effort?
I think the chances of changing the structure of the Israeli government are very small. I donât think itâs a good idea. The United States basically has a federal structure where the power is decentralized from the states, municipalities and counties. Israel is a tiny country. It canât really have that kind of decentralization, and it is no accident that the parliamentary system of government that we have is the one of most common amongst democracies in the world. Itâs functioned very well. Weâve gone through 58 years of war, economic crises and massive immigration, and weâve come through it quite well.
To what extent do you think unilateral withdrawal has helped or harmed Israel?
It certainly hasnât been helpful. The fact is that 8,000 people have been left homeless, left their livelihoods. [And thereâs] a steady rain of Palestinian rockets hitting down on the outskirts of Ashkelon â one of the largest cities, which is all something weâve never had before. Weâve just moved terror closer to Israelâs population centers.
Iran seems to be at the top of the list for the United States, European countries, and Israel as far as the most serious threat to the region, with its pursuit of nuclear capability? Is the ultimate solution a military one?
As you pointed out, most of the rest of the of the world, lead by the United States realizes that nuclear weapons in the hands of the Iranians would be a danger to the world. So this is not just a specific problem for the State of Israel, itâs a problem for the entire world. Whether the United States eventually decides to take military action or whether diplomacy can do the trick remains to be seen.
You served off and on in the Knesset and in the government for more than 30 years. What prompted you to leave politics for the realm of education?
What I am doing now is not only in the line of education. Iâm also involved in business and some research. I felt my tenure of service to the State of Israel had come to an end and I wanted to give the younger people a chance.
You had taught aeronautical engineering at Technion University in Hafia. Why did you choose this leadership role at the College of Judea and Samaria in the West Bank?
First of all, it is an important educational institution in Israel. It is very likely to be the next major university in Israel, so there is a potential for very significant achievement here. The location of course is very important in Ariel; itâs an anchor for the city and for Israeli presence in the area. So for all of these reasons I felt it was important to be here.
Your college seems to have substantial numbers of Ethiopians and Sephardim as students. Can you tell us about their role in Israelâs future?
Our president was born in Iran, our defense minister was born in Iran, our commander of the army comes from an Iranian background. This does not indicate that the Iranians are now running Israel, but it does indicate that people who came here in various waves of immigration have emerged in Israel over the past 50 or 60 years. Theyâve taken their place in Israelâs society, in all aspects of life not only in politics, but also in business, hospitals, and academic life. Wherever you go you find descendents of immigrants or immigrants themselvesâ¦ The same is true for the Ethiopians, who are the most recent group to arrive here.
Individuals interested in the College of Judea & Samaria in Ariel, Israel can contact the collegeâs offices in Southern California at (760) 634-8458 or visit www.yosh.ac.il
This interview was originally published by the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles: