The Jewish Chronicle
“Kingmaker “who blended principled liberalism with ultra-nationalism
MOSHE ARENS, who has died in Israel aged 93, was one of the last of Israel’s founding political generation – and along with Golda Meir and Abba Eban, part of that rare breed of native Englishspeaking “Anglo-Saxim” who once influenced Israeli public affairs.
Thrice defence minister and once foreign minister, Arens came to electoral politics late, in 1977. He had formerly pursued his other passion, aeronautical engineering, during the long years when Herut (progenitor of Likud) seemed doomed to perpetual opposition. Arens is remembered as the ‘discoverer’ of Benjamin Netanyahu, thus more a kingmaker than a king. As Israeli ambassador to Washington from January, 1982 to February, 1983, Arens chose Bibi as his deputy, when the then 31 year old son of Revisionist friends was a furniture salesman.
At one crucial juncture in 1992 he declined an open offer to succeed the outgoing Yitzhak Shamir as Likud party leader. Many concluded that Arens lacked the mass appeal or killer instinct to be prime minister. Political intrigue and chicanery annoyed him, he once admitted. However, such an assessment does injustice to a man of talent, charm and influence who served as a valued fire-fighter to douse Likud problems. He also blended principled liberalism with uncompromising ultra-nationalism. In 1981, for instance, he refused the proffered post of defence minister because he opposed Begin’s territorial concessions to Egypt. In 1991 he resented being barred from retaliating against Iraq over Scud missile attacks. He never trusted the PLO, scuppered Shimon Peres’ Jordan deal in 1987, criticised Netanyahu for the Wye Accord “concessions”, and favoured Israeli annexation of territories.
At the same time, he vehemently opposed the Nation-State Law of 2018 as strategically foolish and demeaning to Israeli Palestinian citizens. He championed larger budgets for the community, allowed Jerusalem Arabs to negotiate with Israel in 1988, when Prime Minister Shamir opposed this, favoured Israeli citizenship for West Bank Palestinians, and decried what he saw as the erosion of democratic and judicial rights in 21st century Israel.
Moshe Arens was born in Kovno, Lithuania, grew up in Riga,Latvia, and came to the United States with his family in 1939. His father Tevye, a descendant of Rogachover Hassidim, was a Latvian entrepreneur who also ran a yeast factory in the States. Using these ties, he called on his wife Roza, a social worker and dentist, to leave immediately with Moshe and his sister Miriam. Tevye thus saved his family from near certain death – presciently as Latvia seemed safe at the time.
The younger Arens served in the US Army - though Japan’s surrender denied him actual battlefield experience. He graduated in engineering from Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1947 and during 1947–48 was US Commissioner for Betar–the Revisionist rightist youth group founded in Riga by Vladimir Jabotinsky, which Moshe had already joined as a teenager. Arens led boycotts of British goods and in May, 1948 organised shiploads of Betarniks to dock at Haifa and join the now-raging war. The first vessel carried his future wife, Muriel Eisenberg, and was boarded by the Lebanese army. The second was the Altalena, carrying arms and personnel to the Irgun, which Labour Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion ordered shelled. During 1948–49 Arens served as Irgun emissary in Europe and North Africa, even though the militia had officially disbanded. He taught Jewish communities self-defence, thus fostering ties which paid off when Likud won its transformative election victory in 1977. In 1949 Arens was also involved in an abortive plot to spring Monty Harris, a Revisionist convicted on terror charges, from an English prison.
After leading a Betar moshav in Israel, Arens returned to the USA to take his Masters at Caltech, 1951-1954, after which he developed jet engines for the Curtis Brown company until 1957. From 1958 he taught aeronautical engineering at the Haifa Technion and during 1962-1971 was deputy director general of Israel Aircraft Industry, where he pioneered the Aravah and Kfir aircraft. In 1971 he received the Israel Security award, and for the next five years he served as the director of the Cybernetics Company.
Newly elected to the Knesset, Arens chaired the Herut party centre, 1977-78, and then the Knesset foreign affairs and defence committee. Though he opposed Israel’s 1979 peace treaty with Egypt, he served as ambassador to the USA in 1982 at the height of Israel’s war in Lebanon. In 1983 he replaced Ariel Sharon as defence minister (after the latter was disgraced over Sabra and Chatilla) and implemented IDF withdrawal from Beirut.
After October, 1986 he replaced Ezer Weizman as minister for minority affairs, but left the government a year later in protest at a cabinet decision to shelve the expensive Lavi jet fighter programme, to which he had been deeply involved. Back in government, in December, 1988 Arens was appointed foreign minister, and in the narrower Likud-led government after June, 1990, he replaced Labour’s Yitzhak Rabin as defence minister.
Arens returned from political retirement to steer Netanyahu’s successful prime ministerial bid in 1996. His last stint as defence minister lasted six months and ended in July, 1999, when he decisively failed in his challenge to his former protegé for the Likud leadership.
Moshe Arens: Statesman and Scientist Speaks Out by Merrill Simon was published in 1988. Arens himself wrote books on aeronautics, as well as Broken Covenant (1995), a critique of USIsraeli relations; and many columns for Israel’s liberal Ha’aretz. He devoted years researching Flags over the Warsaw Ghetto (2011), about the largely untold role of Betar fighters in the 1943 uprising.
In his 2018 political memoir, In Defense of Israel, Arens describes how his belated discovery of events near Riga in 1941 shaped his world view: “The murders committed at Rumbula Forest have haunted my thoughts almost as if I had been there”– concluding: “A strong state of Israel provides the assurance that what happened during the Holocaust... while the world stood by... can never happen again”. He is survived by Muriel, his sons, Yigal and Raanan, and daughters, Aliza and Rut.
Moshe Arens; born December 27, 1925. Died January 7, 2019