Moshe Arens: Three-times defence minister of Israel and mentor to Benjamin Netanyahu

The former aeronautical engineer criticised the ‘damaging’ policies of his protege, the current prime minister

Harrison Smith
Wednesday 09 January 2019 17:53 GMT
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Arens in 1984: politically he was both a rightist and a liberal idealist, and was a champion of equal rights for Arab Israelis
Arens in 1984: politically he was both a rightist and a liberal idealist, and was a champion of equal rights for Arab Israelis

Moshe Arens was the aeronautical engineer turned who served three times as Israel’s defence minister.

Arens​, who has died aged 93, sought to forge closer ties with the US and became a mentor, patron and occasional critic of prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Cool and professorial, with an analytical bent and gentlemanly demeanour, Arens was one of the last survivors of his country’s founding generation.

A former member of the Irgun, the paramilitary group that fought for Israeli independence under British rule, he was both a rightist and a liberal idealist, a champion of equal rights for Arab Israelis who also advocated for the annexation of “Judea and Samaria”, his term for the Palestinian territories in the West Bank.

(From left) Arens with fellow Likud politicians Ariel Sharon, David Levy and then-prime minister Yitzhak Shamir in 1992

But Arens, who had studied at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Caltech and spoke with a polished American accent, became a favourite of Republican legislators and worked closely with members of the Ronald Reagan administration, appearing frequently on American news programmes to argue on behalf of Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in the summer of 1982.

When then-defence minister Ariel Sharon was forced to resign one year later, in the aftermath of the Sabra and Chatila massacre in Beirut, Arens took his place. He went on to oversee sweeping reforms that established a new command structure and missile system, leading to the beginning of Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon.

After his initial one-year stint as defence minister – considered the country’s second-highest office – Arens held the position again in the early 1990s, when he unsuccessfully called for a ground operation to knock out Iraqi Scud missiles during the first Gulf War, and served as defence minister for a third time in 1999.

Arens maintained his key interest was designing jet planes rather than in navigating the turbulence of Israeli politics. Before launching his political career in the 1970s, he played a key role in the development of Israel’s aerospace industry, teaching some of the country’s first aeronautical engineering students as a professor at the Technion, a leading research university in Haifa.

He also served as vice president for engineering at Israel Aircraft Industries, where he shepherded the development of new missile systems and laid the groundwork for the Lavie, a high-tech jet fighter that was developed using $1.5bn of aid from Washington – funding that Arens was widely credited with obtaining.

When the aircraft was abandoned in 1987, amid pressure from the US and concerns over its mounting cost, Arens responded by resigning from his cabinet position (he was then serving as minister without portfolio) and declaring that Israel had made “a terrible mistake”.

Arens’ most enduring political legacy is probably his role in launching the career of Netanyahu, a charismatic furniture salesman – and family friend – whom he hired as his deputy after being appointed ambassador to the United States.

Likening their relationship to that of a father and son, Arens helped Netanyahu gain his next posting, as ambassador to the United Nations, and rehired Netanyahu as his deputy while serving as Israel’s foreign minister in the late 1980s.

When prime minister Yitzhak Shamir was defeated in the 1992 general election, Arens was widely considered the frontrunner to take his place as leader of Likud. Instead, Arens announced that he would step aside, saying he believed in “service, not servitude”. His decision enabled Netanyahu to fill the void in the party’s leadership and win a first term as prime minister in 1996, with Arens serving as a campaign director.

He staged a short-lived comeback bid just three years later, amid what he described as a “crisis in the Likud”, which had lost several prominent members, but was defeated by Netanyahu and left the Knesset for good in 2003.

“I felt I had done my thing,” Arens said by way of explanation, according to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. “Politics was not my profession. It’s not a pleasant job.”

Moshe Arens was born in Kaunas, Lithuania, in 1925. His mother was a dentist and his father was a businessman. The family lived in Riga, the capital of Latvia, before immigrating to New York in 1939, where Arens attended high school alongside Henry Kissinger. Other classmates included Muriel Eisenberg, whom he later married. (In addition to his wife, survivors include four children and nine grandchildren.)

As a teenager in New York, Arens joined Betar, a Zionist youth organisation founded by Ze’ev Jabotinsky, which called for a Jewish state on both sides of the Jordan River and served as an ideological lodestar for Menachem Begin and other right-wing Israeli leaders.

Arens served in the Army Corps of Engineers during the Second World War and received a bachelor’s degree from MIT before moving to Israel in 1948, at the outbreak of the country’s war for independence. Against the wishes of his father, he joined the Irgun – inspired to fight for a Jewish state, he said, by friends and family who had been killed during the Holocaust.

With prime minister Yitzhak Shamir in 1984

In peacetime, he returned to American to study at the California Institute of Technology, where he received a master’s degree in aeronautical engineering in 1953 before joining state-owned Israel Aircraft Industries, now known as Israel Aerospace Industries. His work there earned him the Israel Defence Prize in 1971, two years before he was first elected to the Knesset.

Upon retiring, Arens wrote books including Flags Over the Warsaw Ghetto (2009), which highlighted the role members of Betar played in the Warsaw ghetto uprising of 1943. He also worked as a weekly columnist at Haaretz, where he sometimes ventured criticism of his old protege.

Netanyahu, he said, had made a mistake in accepting gifts while in office – behaviour that led state prosecutors to recommend he be indicted on bribery and fraud charges. And the controversial “nation-state” bill – which describes the nature of the State of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, and was passed in July with Netanyahu’s support – was “a needless law and damaging to Israel”, Arens wrote.

Still, Arens remained behind Netanyahu. “Should he leave,” he wrote in March, “it will be difficult to find a replacement of his calibre.

Moshe Arens, Israeli politician, born 27 December 1925, died 7 January 2019

© Washington Post

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