The Irony of Moshe Arens, the Unfailingly Courteous Gentleman Who Brought Us Netanyahu

The U.S.-educated former defense minister lost his American accent, but one Israeli characteristic he never quite mastered was pushiness

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

In June 1992, Moshe Arens – who died Monday at 93 – was the front-runner to become the next leader of Likud. Yitzhak Shamir had resigned the day after losing to Yitzhak Rabin in the general election and Arens was the heir apparent. His young protégé, Benjamin Netanyahu, had already offered to run his primary campaign. But Arens’ heart was not in it. Citing his belief in “service, not servitude,” he announced his resignation from public life at age 66. The path cleared for Netanyahu. 

It wasn’t the first time Arens had turned down a leadership opportunity. In 1980, Prime Minister Menachem Begin offered the then-chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee the post of defense minister – the second-most important job in the country. Arens declined. As defense chief, he would be in charge of implementing the pullback from Sinai. As an opponent of the 1978 Camp David Accords, he believed Israel had conceded too much by relinquishing the entire Sinai Peninsula to seal a peace deal with Egypt, and so could not carry out the policy in good conscience. The job went to Ariel Sharon, who had fewer scruples.

Arens would become defense minister three years later, after Sharon was forced to resign following the commission of inquiry into the Sabra and Chatila massacre.

Moshe Arens was the most honorable leader Revisionist Zionism never had. Along with current President Reuven Rivlin, he was one of the last survivors of a generation brought up in the Betar principle of hadar – dignity and decorum in the tradition of Ze’ev Jabotinsky.

Anshel Pfeffer pays his respects to Moshe ArensHaaretz

>> 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?

FILE: Moshe Arens, with then-Housing Minister Ariel Sharon, Foreign Minister David Levy and Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir in a Likud leadership meeting in Tel Aviv in 1992
Nattie Harnick / AP

A relentless hawk and unfailingly courteous gentleman well into his nineties, he was always happy to meet reporters, researchers, well-wishers and even critics at the coffee shop near his home in the Tel Aviv suburb of Savyon, impeccably turned out and patrician in manner and bearing – a near-unique example of an American oleh (immigrant) who rose to the top of Israeli politics without losing his Western polish. 

Arens lost his American accent, but one Israeli characteristic he never quite mastered was pushiness. He was simply incapable of pushing himself forward. It was a marvel that, at the height of a successful career as an aeronautical engineer – he had designed the first indigenous Israeli aircraft, the Arava transporter – he went into politics as well.

But he did indeed see it as service. And he rose so high because Likud’s leaders, Begin and Shamir, implicitly trusted him.

After turning down Begin’s offer to serve as defense minister, he was dispatched instead to Washington in 1982 – the first American-Israeli to be sent as Israel’s ambassador to the United States.

It is ironic that Arens, who lived such a full life, will ultimately be remembered as Netanyahu’s mentor; the man who opened the door to public life and offered the 32-year-old frustrated sales executive at an Israeli furniture company the opportunity to be his number two at the Israeli Embassy in Washington.

FILE PHOTO: Israeli Permanent Representative to the United Nations Ambassador Benjamin Netanyahu at the U.N. 6 November 1987.

Arens was the first to recognize Netanyahu’s obvious presentational and rhetoric gifts. He wanted Bibi not as his wingman in the corridors of power but as Israel’s chief spokesperson on American television. Unlike other senior ambassadors, Arens didn’t desire the media limelight for himself. 

Later in the 1980s, while serving as foreign minister, Arens also convinced a skeptical Shamir to appoint the newcomer to Likud as his deputy foreign minister. Even when Netanyahu failed to show loyalty, and in meetings with Shamir deviated from the positions they had agreed upon beforehand, Arens didn’t ditch his protégé.

Over the years, even when exasperated by Netanyahu’s conduct, he remained proud of his success. Occasionally, when his name would come up in conversation, he would remark, “Well, I discovered him. What do you think? Was he a good discovery?”

Not that Netanyahu was ever good at showing gratitude. He attended Arens’ 90th birthday celebration, telling the audience: “I read your columns in Haaretz, it’s one of the few times I agree with what that paper says.” But he left the event before Arens spoke. 

Then-Defense Minister Moshe Arens discussing the Lavi fighter jet with members of the Alignment Party, May 1983.
Nati Harnik / GPO

Arens never shied away from criticizing Netanyahu, but he usually did so in his own reserved manner. One of the last times he tried to influence him was in 2016, when he advised Netanyahu not to appoint Avigdor Lieberman as defense minister – the role he himself fulfilled three times.

But he recognized that he had little influence over the man whose political career he had launched. “Maybe he won’t listen to me now because I’m only a columnist at Haaretz,” he joked. “But then, he was never one to listen to anyone.”