Moshe Arens, who died on Monday at age 93, was a rare breed – a member of the rightist Revisionist movement and a humanist, an ideologue and an idealist, a disciple of the greater Land of Israel who upheld liberal principles and defended individual rights and equality for Arabs.
For his colleagues on the right, he was the last remnant of a group of rightists who believed in mutual respect and in Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s principle of hadar, or honor – qualities that have been destroyed by his protégé, Benjamin Netanyahu. For his rivals on the left, Arens was an honored, worthy opponent.
Moshe Arens was molded by the landscapes of his childhood. In his birthplace in Lithuania, he absorbed the rationalism of its Jews, and in the United States, where he moved with his family at age 14, he acquired his American accent, his training as an engineer, his admiration for the U.S. Constitution and the freedoms enshrined in it, and his love for the Land of Israel, Jabotinsky and the Beitar youth movement, which didn’t leave him until the day of his death. All these formed his exceptional character and contributed to his many achievements, which included developing Israel Aerospace Industries, setting up an early version of the army’s ground forces command and being a responsible public servant at the highest levels – an affable foreign minister, a forceful and enterprising defense minister, and a chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee who set a new standard for parliamentary oversight.
Alongside all this, he opposed the peace agreement with Egypt; he viewed Menachem Begin’s decision to cede the entire Sinai as a hasty, defeatist step and a bad deal. He also refused to accept the post of defense minister in 1980, saying his conscience wouldn’t let him evacuate the Jewish settlements in Sinai. Instead, Ariel Sharon was given the job and dragged the Begin government into the Lebanon War of 1982.
After refusing the Defense Ministry, Arens was appointed Israel’s ambassador to the United States, which turned out to be the most significant post of his life. As ambassador, he paved Netanyahu’s way into the world of diplomacy and politics, and ultimately to the Prime Minister’s Office. As defense minister during the 1991 Gulf War, Arens pushed (unsuccessfully) for Israel to reject America’s demands for restraint, instead urging a ground operation against Iraq’s Scud missiles. He was also unable to accept the security and commercial logic of canceling the Lavi fighter plane project, which he conceived and nurtured. Both these stances attested to conceptual rigidity.
Nevertheless, his hawkish views were balanced by his basic character traits – courtesy, restraint and strong support for Israel’s democracy, about whose problems he wrote in Haaretz in recent years, stressing the state’s treatment of its Arab minority.
Arens was considered a strange bird in Likud even before the party abandoned his values. He lacked the cynicism, the determined ambition and inflated ego that disappointed him in Netanyahu, but could have made him premier. He was a security hawk and a gentleman, and his death gives rise to nostalgia for his style and good manners, which characterized him to the end.
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