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Is Obama Using ‘Hard Power’ to ‘Get Israel to Toe the Line’?

Part I of a two-part interview with Moshe Arens — former Israeli defense minister, foreign minister, and ambassador to the U.S.

by
Ruthie Blum Leibowitz

Bio

April 3, 2010 - 12:04 am
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In a recent op-ed in the Hebrew daily Haaretz — for which he is a regular contributor — veteran politician and pundit Moshe (Misha) Arens recently took a stab at his former protégé, Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu, for “groveling” before the American administration. The prime minister, he wrote, “might have been humming ‘I’m just a soul whose intentions are good, Oh Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood.’”

He was referring to the Israeli government’s apologetic response to the latest brouhaha in Washington over the building of 1,600 housing units in Jerusalem, the announcement of which coincided with Vice President Joe Biden’s visit last month to the city.

It might strike some as strange that the 84-year-old aeronautical engineer and scholar — who served as a Knesset member, defense minister, foreign minister, and ambassador to the United States — would invoke a 1960s rock hit to express his dismay and disgust over an issue he holds so dear. But, then, Arens is altogether a walking paradox, particularly on the boisterous, chaotic Israeli scene, where he has been a prominent figure since his arrival in 1948.

Nor is his quiet, gentlemanly demeanor somewhat of an aberration in a country whose culture, until very recently, was characterized by a style of ill-mannered familiarity; but the fact that he is respected across the political spectrum — in spite of his unabashed hard-line leanings (not to mention early history as a leader of the revisionist Betar movement and subsequent member of the Zionist resistance organization, known as the Etzel) — makes him all the more mysterious. It is a tribute to his intellectual integrity that even his adversaries acknowledge admiring him.

Indeed, in spite of its controversial content, Aren’s latest book, Flags over the Ghetto, a scholarly examination of the heretofore-ignored and crucial role that Betar played in the Warsaw ghetto uprising, is taken seriously by champions and critics alike.

This is not to say that Arens — who was born in Lithuania and immigrated to the U..S as a young teenager — hasn’t had his fair share of strife, including within his own camp. In fact, his career has been punctuated by a series of struggles, among them a rift with Netanyahu.

Though “Misha” went to great lengths to help “Bibi” get appointed ambassador to the UN in 1983, welcomed his entering the Knesset for the first time in 1988, and backed his becoming prime minister for the first time in 1996 — he didn’t hesitate to turn against the “Likud prince” for signing the 1997 Hebron Protocol, and then the 1998 Wye River Memorandum, with PLO chief Yasser Arafat. The following year, Arens went as far as to challenge Netanyahu — unsuccessfully — for the party leadership. Netanyahu nevertheless “rewarded” Arens with the defense portfolio.

Since those days, Arens has been what could be called “cautiously supportive” of the man he once treated like a son.

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