By SIMONE COHEN SCOTT
Jerusalem, January 18th, 2019
Moshe Arens passed away this month on January 7. Over the years I heard talks by Arens three times.. The first occasion was years ago at one of our excellent forums in Winnipeg.
The second, in 2013, was here in Jerusalem at the A.A.C.I. (Association of Americans & Canadians in Israel), where he discussed his book “Flags Over the Warsaw Ghetto”. I reported on that talk for this paper, and subsequently reviewed the book as well. That evening, in the process of discussing the book, he opened up considerably about who he was as a person. The audience knew, of course, of his illustrious career in the Knesset, serving from 1973 to 1992 and again from 1999 until 2003. Over those years he had held key positions: Ambassador to the United States, Foreign Minister, Minister of Defense three separate times. – all this, in addition to his earlier career in industry and academia.
During the Q & A, someone in the audience asked him if he had belonged to a youth program growing up. His answer was “BETAR”, the Jewish youth group best known for its association with Zev Jabotinsky, and which was loosely modeled after the Jewish legions which fought with the British forces during World War I. (The name BETAR is an acronym formed from the name Joseph Trumpeldor, a founder and one of the heroes of those legions.)
By the time Arens was born in 1925 in Lithuania, the organization had branches throughout Eastern Europe. He became a leader in the movement, no doubt carrying his involvement over to the United States where he emigrated with his family at age 14. In World War II, he served in the United States Army. By 1948 he had moved to Israel and was serving in the War of Independence with Etzel, (an acronym for the Irgun), Jabotinsky again being one of its founders. He returned to the States long enough to earn an engineering degree from M.I.T, then to study aeronautical engineering at Caltech.
It was finally, in 2016, around Arens 90th birthday, when he spoke at Jerusalem’s International Rotary Club, that I realized the kind of man he really was. He spoke that day about what was probably the biggest disappointment of his entire life, the cancellation, in August 1987, of the Lavi jet fighter plane. The idea to build something like the Lavi grew out of the Six Day War. Throughout the years prior, and then during that war, supplier countries had been stalling or holding back sales and/or delivery of weaponry to Israel. (A manipulative device for sure, to make Israel knuckle under.) The ambitious solution was for Israel to develop its own arms industry. Furthermore, its needs were unique; no other country faced the specific topographical, existential, and geographical, considerations of Israel, particularly lack of strategic depth, personnel preservation, and range capability, meaning lack of refueling depots. It isn’t that Israel had been doing without these requirements; she invariably had to modify and adapt any weaponry she would receive.
A word here about ‘personnel preservation’: Every one knows that Israel values every single member of her fighting force. When a fellow has become a top notch pilot or gunner, or whatever, he is not easily replaced. It’s important to keep him alive. An example of this (I learned) is Israel’s Merkava tank, designed so that the crew is in back. In battles they are apt to lose the engine, but not the crew. Israelis have devised a way to do this without sacrificing vision capability. No other country has been attentive to that feature: Tank crews everywhere else are placed up front.
The design of the Lavi would have been excellent in every way. Uh….except for costs. Production facilities needed to be built. If 300 planes were produced, the cost per plane would have been quite reasonable (as costs go in the arms industry). But Israel didn’t need 300 planes. She needed a market for all the extra ones. Some were planned to go to the United States, as President Reagan was all for it – as was Congress which, in 1983, had passed the purchase. There were opportunities lining up for the Lavi to be a win/win for both countries. (Actually the States was fronting a lot of the money for the endeavour.) On 31 August 1987, the decision went to the Israeli Cabinet. The naysayers, in their presentation, based the cost on 80 planes, not 300. The vote on whether or not to go ahead was taken. Eleven were in favour, twelve were not. One vote.
I mentioned earlier that Arens was Defence Minister three different times. He enthusiastically supported the development of this innovative fighter plane. However, as it happened, between the critical years 1984 to 1990 the Defense Minister was Yitzchak Rabin, not Moshe Arens. Arens instead was Minister Without Portfolio, then Foreign Minister. Had he been the Defense Minister, it would have been a different story. The Washington Post, the next day, wrote: ‘The 61-year-old former Ambassador to the United States and Defense Minister responded to the narrow governmental decision not to build the plane by resigning from the Cabinet, saying he could not fulfill his ministerial position by supporting a decision he considers “a terrible mistake”.’
After Moshe Arens spoke to us at the Rotary Club, I approached him and we chatted a bit, making comparisons between the Lavi and the Canadian Avro Arrow, which was unceremoniously canceled back in 1959. Both were fighter planes. Both were state of the art. Both would have established their respective countries at the forefront of cutting edge aeronautic industrial technology. Both were dependent on forthcoming support from the United States. (Canada’s security concerns then, by the way, were Russian bombers flying over the country’s north.) Both decisions were crushing disappointments that left untold numbers of highly skilled technicians jobless, contributing to brain drain from the two countries. Some are of the opinion, too, that both cancellations were ultimately due to machinations from certain quarters in the United States.
Still today Israel needs to adapt the planes she purchases to suit her specific criteria. Persuading arms manufacturers to conform to those criteria is an uphill battle. The F-35s Israel recently purchased from the Americans have certain unacceptable weaknesses/deficiencies, and from what I understand, Israel is not being allowed to adapt them herself. It seems the adjustments, and they’re not negligible, need to be done in the States’ own facilities, by the States’ own personnel.
According to Wikipedia, as recently as 2013 Moshe Arens stated that if the project had not been canceled, the IAF “…would be operating the world’s most advanced fighter, upgraded over the years to incorporate operational experience and newer technology.” I have no doubt production of the Lavi would have become the ground floor of a solid aeronautical industry in Israel, and was what Moshe Arens, Betar leader cum aeronautical engineer, was all about. My opening remark to him that day, and I had a lump in my throat, had been a question: “How could you stand it? How could you go on after that, and handle not the pain of the loss to you, but the loss to the country?” He replied: “What can you do? How can you go on? You go on, that’s all.” Rest in Peace, Moshe Arens, rest in Peace!