Moshe Arens, Former Israeli Defense Minister and Liberal Likud Veteran, Dies at 93

Arens was esteemed by many as the 'gentleman' of Israeli politics and was one of the top representatives of national, liberal and democratic Zionism

Moshe Arens, 2010.
Tess Scheflan

Former Defense Minister Moshe Arens, one of Likud’s veteran members, died on Monday in his sleep at his home in Savyon, near Tel Aviv, at the age of 93.

Arens was esteemed by many as the "gentleman" of Israeli politics and was one of the leading representatives of national, liberal and democratic Zionism.

Arens is also seen as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's political patron. He is regarded as the one who first brought the prime minister into the world of politics by having Netanyahu named to the Israeli embassy in Washington while serving as ambassador there. 

Moshe Arens with U.S. President Ronald Reagan and former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir at the White House, on November 28, 1983.
SA'AR YA'ACOV / GPO
Former Defense Minister Moshe Arens (left), Former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Former Foreign Minister David Levy and Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir sit in Tel Aviv on Monday, Feb. 10, 1992.
Nattie Harnick / AP

"The man is very talented. His talent would have emerged in any event," he said of Netanayhu.

Netanyahu expressed his mourning in a tweet on Monday, in which he referred to Arens by his nickname, Misha, "my teacher," and a student of Zabotinsky's.

>> Moshe Arens' last Haaretz columns: The leadership gap among Israeli Arabs ■ Jerusalem can unite ■ Next time Afula residents need an Arab doctor ■ What is necessary for peace?

The prime minister, whose Likud party has its roots in the Revisionist movement, noted that his own father, Benzion Netanyahu, got to know Arens through the movement and attended Arens' wedding. "Since then, a deep connection between our families developed," the prime minister noted.

Arens, an opinion columnist for Haaretz, is survivied by his wife, Muriel, four children and nine grandchildren. In his columns, he expressed his right-wing democratic point of view, which included support for equal rights for all of the country's citizens.

Former Defense Minister Moshe Arens during a briefing with Israel army officers in 1983.
Israel Defense Ministry

From MIT to Israel's Defense Ministry

Between his election to the Knesset in 1974 and his retirement from politics in 1999, Arens served as chairman of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. In 1982, he served as Israel’s ambassador to the United States for a year before returning to Israel to become defense minister. He later served as foreign minister as well. 

The biggest achievement of Arens, who studied mechanical engineering at MIT and aeronautical engineering at the California Institute of Technology, was his role in the developing of Israel Aircraft Industries, now known as Israel Aerospace Industries. His biggest loss was a government decision to shut his crowning glory, the Lavi fighter plane project, which he had overseen.

Arens served in the American military’s engineering corps from 1944 to 1946, before attending MIT. As a right-winger, he headed the Beitar Revisionist movement in the United States and got the opportunity to shake hands with Zeev Jabotinsky, the major Revisionist Zionist figure. In 1948, before he immigrated to Israel, the Irgun pre-state underground group sent him to assist the Jews of North Africa and provide self-defense training to Beitar activists in Tunis.

Moshe Arens. center-right, sits next to Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara, during the former's 90th birthday anniversary.
Lior Mizrahi

In the 1950s, Arens was a research fellow at the Technion Israel Institute of Technology and held a professorship there. He taught the first group of aeronautical engineering students, who numbered 12 people, including one woman.
  
"They laid the foundations for the establishment of aeronautical engineering in Israel," he once boasted. 

In 1962, he went to work for Israel Aircraft Industries during a period of tension with Egypt. He served as deputy director general of the company,  and under his stewardship, it developed the Gabriel sea-to-sea missile, which he described as “an amazing operational success in Yom Kippur,  and sunk Syrian and Egyptian vessels.”

Afterwards “aside from projects we don’t talk about in the realm of missiles,” as he put it, the industries developed the Arava light aircraft and the Mirage, which was upgraded following the French embargo and became the Kfir. In 1971 he was awarded the Israel Defense Prize.

Moshe Arens in 1984.
IDF Spokesperson's Unit

Arens saw his Lavi fighter aircraft project at Israel Aircraft Industries shut down by the government of Yitzhak Shamir in 1987 on the advice of then-Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres. Arens, who by that year was a minister without portfolio in the cabinet, called the decision "an act of stupidity" and in response, briefly resigned from the government.

Arens had launched his political career in 1974 with his election to the Knesset on the Likud ticket. He was a Knesset member through 1992 and again from 1999 to 2003. In 1979, as chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, he voted against the peace treaty with Egypt because he didn’t believe Israel should return the Sinai in exchange.

“The Egyptians attacked us four times, in the War of Independence, in the [1956] Sinai campaign, the Six-Day War and the Yom Kippur War. They were defeated four times. You will not find any other example in history of an aggressor getting back everything that it lost in war. It’s neither logical nor reasonable,” he said. Prime Minister Menachem Begin could have gotten better terms for the treaty if he had insisted on them, he claimed.

Former Defense Minister Moshe Arens sits in a meeting with former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and then-U.S. Secretary of State George P. Shultz, on April 27, 1983.
Yaakov Saar / GPO

In 1980, Arens declined Begin’s request to serve as defense minister after Ezer Weizman’s resignation, because he didn’t want to oversee the evacuation of Yamit, the Israeli settlement in Sinai, a move that Arens viewed as a strategic mistake. In the end, Ariel Sharon, who later went on to become prime minister, was named defense minister and Arens was appointed ambassador to Washington.

Following Sharon's dismissal as defense minister after the 1982 Sabra and Chatila massacre in the Lebanon by Israel's Phalangist militia allies, Arens was named defense minister and oversaw the beginning of the Israeli army's withdrawal from Lebanon.

'Worked day and night'

In eulogizing Arens, President Reuven Rivlin called him one of Israel's most outstanding defense ministers. Although he had not been a military man by background, Arens "worked day and night for the security of the State of Israel and its citizens," he said. "Misha worked his entire life in various key positions to consolidate and develop the State of Israel. As an Irgun member, as a scientist, as an engineer, statesman, ambassador and as an executive in the industries most important to Israel's defense."

When Arens was defense minister, he was involved in overseeing a prisoner swap in which Israel freed thousands of prisoners including convicted terrorists in exchange for six soldiers being held by the Palestine Liberation Organization. “I thought that any future damage caused by the release would be very limited. It turned out to be close to zero,” he later said.

Moshe Arens in 1992.
IDF Spokesperson's Unit

He also led to the consolidation of the army's ground forces and the establishment of the Home Front Command. He was defense minister in 1984 when Palestinians hijacked a bus from Ashkelon and it later was disclosed that two of the hijackers had been killed after having been captured alive by agents of the Shin Bet security service. The case became a major public scandal later after it transpired that the Shin Bet had lied about the circumstances under which the terrorists died.

Arens arrived at the scene and saw that two terrorists had been killed and two others had been taken into custody. “I said in an interview with Army Radio that this was the situation But after I got to the office I heard on the radio that all of them had been killed. It wasn’t clear what had happened,” Arens later said. When it transpired that the Shin Bet had killed the two other hijackers Arens appointed an internal investigation.

Arens was also defense minister in Shamir’s government during the 1991Gulf War. In the face of opposition from Shamir, he supported sending an Israeli army commando force in response to the Scud missiles shot at Israel. In the end, the commando force was not dispatched.

Arens served from 1988 to 1990 as foreign minister in a national unity government and devoted much of his efforts to explaining Israel’s policies after the outbreak of the first intifada. In 1992, he returned to the defense ministry. After Rabin’s election victory, he retired from politics, but returned briefly in 1999, serving as defense minister again for several months in Netanyahu’s cabinet.

Of his retirement from politics he said: “I felt I had done my thing. Politics was not my profession. It’s not a pleasant job.”