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News Analysis; a Moderate Former Defense Chief Now Faces Challenges of Intifada

June 13, 1990
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Moshe Arens began his first day in office as Israel’s new defense minister by extending a gesture of good will toward the Palestinian population.

Security sources announced that a West Bank Arab college near Jerusalem, shut down since the intifada began more than two years ago, would be reopened.

Whether the gesture will set the tone for Arens’ tenure as defense chief remains to be seen.

The Lithuanian-born, American-educated former aeronautical engineer is no novice to the defense establishment. He served as defense minister in the Likud government of Prime Minister Menachem Begin, replacing Ariel Sharon, who was ousted from the post in 1982 for allowing excesses in the Lebanon war.

At that time, Arens pursued a policy of moderation toward the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, based on his political credo that coexistence between Arabs and Jews in the territories is possible without territorial concessions by Israel.

Arens was later appointed minister in charge of Arab affairs, which gave him responsibility for Israel’s 700,000 Arab citizens.

Again he was guided by his ideological mentor, Ze’ev Jabotinsky, who believed the Arab population should be treated as equals.

But Arens differentiated between “positive” Arabs, who cooperated with the Jewish political establishment, and “negative” ones, who opposed it. He also tended to favor other minorities, such as the Druse and Circassians, who serve in the Israel Defense Force.


While Arens avoided friction with Israeli Arabs during his tenure, there was no love lost between them.

But the situation now is fraught with peril. The intifada is in its 30th month and shows no signs of abating. It could easily spill into Israel proper.

Unexpectedly, a prominent Palestinian activist has given a backhanded vote of confidence to the new Likud government.

Faisal Husseini of East Jerusalem, who advocates non-violent resistance to Israeli rule in the territories, said he preferred the new regime to the national unity partnership between Likud and Labor that it replaced.

“Finally the government will talk with one voice, and perhaps it will be able to make decisions,” Husseini said Monday.

But he warned that if the Likud government “intends to wage war against us, we shall stand firm and return war.”

Arens steps into the shoes of Laborite Yitzhak Rabin, the former defense minister whose tough but controlled security measures in the territories won the support of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir.

In Rabin’s view, the Palestinian uprising could be contained, but not quelled, by military measures.

Likud moderates shared that view. But hardliners, not moderates, are now ascendant in Likud, and Arens, paradoxically, is not likely to enjoy the confidence reposed in Rabin.

For one thing, he will have to deal with the resurgent power of Sharon, who has made no secret that he coveted the defense portfolio. He has boasted frequently that if given free rein, he could end the intifada in a matter of days.

Arens’ first test will come the next time the territories erupt in violence, as they did last month, after a lone Jewish gunman massacred seven Arab day laborers near Rishon le-Zion.

He will have to decide whether to let the IDF deal with the situation as it has in the past — with restraint in such areas as the use of live ammunition — or by introducing much harsher measures to please Sharon.

If Sharon decides to breath down Arens’ neck, the new defense minister may have no choice but to demonstrate that he can be tough.

Sharon is minister of construction and housing with special authority for the absorption of Soviet Jewish immigrants. In that capacity, he can throw the territories into turmoil by settling Soviet Jews there.

Arens will likely learn in that case what Rabin found out: that the intifada will continue as long as there is no political solution.

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