Moshe Arens labels Peres views on Arabs naive

"Lots of things can happen in the three months before election day," Moshe Arens said last week during an interview in San Francisco.

"Mr. Peres is very hopeful that the whole Mideast has changed. I think this is a rather naive viewpoint."

Arens, who served as Israel's defense minister during the Gulf War, asserted that Prime Minister Shimon Peres and the Labor Party were only riding a "wave of sympathy" among Israelis following Yitzhak Rabin's assassination Nov. 4.

"I have no doubt that gap will be closing," said Arens, who was visiting the Bay Area to raise money for the American Society of Technion-Israel Institute of Technology. "It's probably not really a fundamental change in their point of view."

If so, the two terrorist attacks that killed 27 people Sunday could mean a reversal of fortune for Likud and its candidate for prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.

Though there hadn't been any major terrorist attacks in Israel for six months when Arens was interviewed, he had no doubt that the cessation was only temporary. The international media no longer label Palestinian Council President Yasser Arafat a terrorist, but Arens believes otherwise.

"Obviously, he's a terrorist," Arens said. "People at his age, do their characters change totally?"

At age 70, Arens certainly hasn't. His hawkish stance on Israel's security has remained firm throughout his political career and subsequent retirement. During his 18 years in government, Arens served as a Knesset member, a defense and foreign minister, and Israel's ambassador to the United States.

He quit politics in 1992 after Likud's defeat at the ballot box. He has acted as an informal adviser to the right-wing party since then, but Arens has no plans to return in any official capacity.

"We let younger people take charge," he said.

Today, Arens is deputy director of an investment firm called Israel Corporation Ltd. Once a professor of engineering at the Technion in Haifa, he also serves on the high-tech institute's board of governors.

But Arens was still more than willing to talk politics from his corner suite on the 12th floor of San Francisco's Fairmont Hotel.

Only one piece of Arens' political analysis didn't fit the scenario of Sunday's bombings, which the militant Islamic group Hamas has claimed responsibility for.

Arens asserted that terrorist attacks had ceased due to a pact between Arafat and Hamas that would help Arafat's preferred negotiating partner Peres defeat Netanyahu.

"I think it's clear at the moment that Arafat thinks it's better for his cause," Arens said. "They would not like to see Netanyahu in power, I think."

Israeli political analysts and polls already are positing that Sunday's bombing can do nothing but help Netanyahu in the May 29 elections.

Like Netanyahu, Arens would never have signed the Oslo II Accords that gave Palestinians autonomy over the Gaza Strip and some of the West Bank. But Arens, like Netanyahu, wouldn't revoke them now either.

"Israel is a democracy and follows the norms of Western democracies," he said. That includes upholding signed treaties and accords, even when governments change hands.

Arens added that the final-status agreement with the Palestinians, which Netanyahu would oversee if he wins, is more significant than the interim accords. The final-status talks, which were set to start in May but have been suspended indefinitely since Sunday's bombings, will decide such issues as the status of Jerusalem and the borders of a Palestinian entity.

Peres recently reaffirmed that he does not support a Palestinian state. But Arens maintained that Peres would return Israel to its pre-1967 borders. In Arens' view, Israel's security would ultimately suffer with such borders.

"They're not defensible," he said. "We're talking here about a hostile presence."

Despite his opposition to the Oslo II Accords, Arens conceded the agreements have pumped up Israel's economy by opening markets in countries such as India and Indonesia.

This doesn't mean that Arens would back such deals for the sake of profit.

"If a politician said to sacrifice security interests for the economy, that would be a dilemma," he said. "Not even the Labor Party has ever said we should make concessions to progress economically."