Then-Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Arens (L) meets with former U.S. Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger in 1983 in Washington. (Wikimedia Commons)

‘A Gentleman Who Hated Politics’ – Israel’s Former Defense Minister Moshe Arens Dies At 93

The statesman is credited with making Israel a technological power in the air and space

Israel’s former defense minister Moshe Arens has died at the age of 93. A conservative who also championed liberal and democratic Zionism, Arens served as defense chief during the premierships of Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Shamir and Binyamin Netanyahu. He also briefly held the minister of Foreign Affairs portfolio under Shamir from 1988 to 1990.

Arens is also known for sparking the political rise of a young diplomat named Binyamin Netanyahu whom he as an attaché while serving as Israel’s ambassador to the United States. He later appointed Netanyahu to serve as the Jewish state’s ambassador to the United Nations.

Professor Eytan Gilboa, a Senior Research Associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, told The Media Line that the former defense minister will be most remembered for his aeronautic approach to Israel’s security.

“He was in favor of making Israel a technological power in air and space. He was also behind Israel’s attempt to build its own combat plane called the Lavi, as well as the designing of missiles, defense systems and satellites,” Gilboa, who knew Arens well, added.

He was not without mistakes. Gilboa cited Arens’ fervent support for the Lavi project as a gross error in thinking because it meant competition with the American defense industry, Jerusalem’s chief supplier of military hardware.

“Another of his strategic mistakes occurred during the first Gulf War [1990-91] when as defense minister Arens was in favor of Israel’s active participation in the U.S.-led battle against Iraq’s Saddam Hussein,” explaining that he wanted to retaliate for the dictator’s Scud missile attacks on Israeli cities.

“But then-Prime Minister Shamir overruled him because the latter understood this could create a confrontation with Washington. The Americans wanted to keep Israel out of the conflict so it could count on Arab support during the war.”

Recalling his personal traits, Gilboa said that Arens “was not a politician, but a political leader. He was a gentleman who actually hated politics.”

He was supposed to become prime minister after Shamir, “but Arens was not built for this kind of politics. He was a very honest person who never lied in his life and never participated in any political manipulations, and those in the opposition respected him for that.”

Born in Lithuania in 1925, the young Arens immigrated to the United States with his family just before World War II broke out in 1939. When Israel achieved statehood in 1948 he moved there and joined an Israeli paramilitary group. Unable to secure work as a career military man, however, he returned to the States to study at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and California Institute of Technology. His high-level of education opened up pathways back in Israel where he became an academic and Deputy CEO of Israel Aerospace Industries.

He first entered the Israeli parliament in 1973 on the Likud ticket and remained in politics for the next 19 years. In 1992 he briefly retired and then changed his mind, returning to public life from 1999 to 2003.
A prodigious writer, he published eight books and numerous columns for Israel’s leading newspapers, one of which appeared only a few weeks ago.

On the Israeli-Palestinian conflict “Arens was on one hand very tough because he opposed statehood for the Palestinians, but on the other sympathetic to the idea that Israelis must work with them to ensure their rights,” Dr. Danny Tirza, a retired Israeli army colonel and Fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, told The Media Line.

Tirza – who also knew Arens well – added that although the former defense minister sought to protect the Palestinians’ personal rights, he did not recognize their national rights. “In his eyes, the Palestinians are part and parcel of the wider Arab world and the solution to the conflict had to run through it and not come on the account of the Jewish people.”

On a personal level, Arens “was interested in everything and always wanted to know the exact numbers in every situation. He was a scientist in his own way. This wasn’t always easy in the army because we were dealing with fluid situations, but he was a civilian who always sought hard evidence. We liked him very much,” Tirza concluded.

Earlier this week, Israeli leaders paid their respects to Arens with Prime Minister Netanyahu issuing a statement. “I visited him in his home a few weeks ago. He was as clear as ever, sharp, dignified and noble, an example to us all. There was no greater patriot than him. Misha [Moshe], I loved you as a son loves a father,” he wrote.

President Reuven Rivlin stated that the Arens “worked day and night for the security of the State of Israel and its citizens.”

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