by Stephen Bryen
I don’t remember exactly the first time I met Moshe Arens, maybe it was 1974 but certainly by 1975. He was even then a great force in Israel, especially because of his importance to Israel’s emerging aerospace industry.
I remember visiting the Israel Aircraft Industries (now Israel Aerospace Industries) and seeing the Kfir fighter under construction. They were just then working on the C-2 version of the Kfir, which differed from the first version by having canards on the aircraft to give it better performance and control at slow speeds. The mastermind behind the Kfir was Moshe Arens. The fighter aircraft itself was an evolution of a French design for the Mirage-5, but with a different engine and avionics. The initial version was called the Nesher (“Vulture”) –it still used the French Atar engine. Israel added better avionics and a Martin-Baker ejection seat, missing from the Mirage. This was followed by the Kfir (“Lion Cub”) aircraft, which used the General Electric J-79 power plant, the same engine that was also used in pairs in the much larger US F-4 Phantom. Both the Nesher’s and the Kfir’s saw combat service in Israel and abroad. The Nesher was exported to Argentina under the name Dagger, and a special version called Finger III was built to Argentine requirements. The Nesher/Dagger/Finger saw extensive service in the Falkland’s war, flying some 153 sorties.
Arens was the man behind the Nesher and later Kfir, as he was a great proponent of the Lavi (“Young Lion”) multirole 4th generation fighter. Lavi sparked an internal revolt in Israeli military circles because the cost of developing the Lavi bit hard into money needed for the army and navy. In the end only 3 prototypes of the Lavi were built after the Lavi was defunded by a 12 to 11 vote by Israel’s cabinet. Arens considered the cancellation of damaging blow to Israel and through the remainder of his life he remained a fierce advocate.
My assignment took special form when, as the Staff Director of the Near East Subcommittee of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee I got the task to arrange a lunch for Mr. Arens with the Committee.
At that time, MK (Member of Knesset, the same as Member of Congress) Arens was then Chairman of the Israeli Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, roughly the equivalent of the US Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations Committees. In the Senate Foreign Relations Committee it was traditional to invite visiting heads of foreign equivalent committees to a lunch, generally hosted by the Committee Chairman, who was then John Sparkman of Alabama. Sparkman was a southern Democrat, probably a lot more conservative than other members of the Committee that included in their ranks Hubert Humphrey, Frank Church, Jacob Javits and Clifford Case. In short, the committee leaned toward the liberal end of the spectrum, although (despite the damage caused by the wars in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos) on foreign policy there was a bipartisan sentiment especially when it came to NATO and Israel. Even so, the Committee staff was buzzing, afraid that in their view ultra right-wing Moshe Arens would turn out to be harmful to Israel’s positive relations with the United States (although some of them no doubt were afraid Arens might be successful).
The lunch was held in a committee room in the center of the capitol building known as S-116. The room was dominated by a large oval dining table capable of holding all the Senators and a few guests. It was where some of the most intimate meetings of the committee were held, and where the committee gathered, often in secret session to hear the latest from Henry Kissinger and from other leaders in the administration. Important foreign heads of state also paid visits to S-116.
Virtually all the Senators on the Foreign Relations Committee showed up to hear Moshe Arens. Israel is a big ticket item in the Congress, and this day was no exception. Who can forget Benjamin Netanyahu’s stirring speech to the entire Congress in 2015 when he blasted the Iran nuclear deal –a speech greeted by strong cheering and perhaps as dramatic as Churchill’s speech to Congress in wartime December, 1941.
After Chairman Sparkman introduced Arens there was a distinct silence. Then Arens got started –he pulled no punches and he spoke rapidly, earnestly and directly. Not a word was said by any Senator until Mr. Arens finished his remarks.
At this point, and before questions could be asked, it was Senator Sparkman’s task to sum things up. Turning to Arens, the Senator said that Arens speech was the best he ever heard a foreigner give. “Son,” he said, “you speak American.”
And so Moshe Arens did. While he was an immigrant to America, from Kaunas, Lithuania via Riga, Latvia (1939) he was educated first at George Washington High School in New York, joined the Army’s Corps of Engineers where he held the rank of Technical Sergeant, and then with his family immigrated to Israel. He returned to the United States where he took degrees at MIT (engineering) and the California Institute of Technology (aeronautical engineering). So when he spoke, even rapidly he spoke like an American. It was this that impressed Sparkman.
But what impressed everyone was not just Moshe Arens as an “American” speaker. What everyone heard and felt was that this was a highly educated brilliant man who was sincere and dedicated as anyone could possibly be. The real strength of Moshe Arens, and the reason why he will be remembered long after all his airplanes are sitting on museum pedestals is that he was entirely sincere and despite sometime described only in the context of his views on the Israel-Palestinian question, in fact worked hard to make sure minorities in Israel and elsewhere received fair treatment and equality. Even though he was against a separate Palestinian state, for which he is sometimes considered too “right wing,” the fact is he was for giving Palestinians Israeli citizenship.
Though he has now departed, taking time to understand Moshe Arens is more than a lesson in recent history. He had much to say and we can learn lessons from his wisdom.