States­man and mentor to Ne­tanyahu was three-time Is­raeli de­fense chief

The Washington Post Sunday - - OBITUARIES - BY HAR­RI­SON SMITH har­ri­[email protected]­

Moshe Arens, an aero­nau­ti­cal en­gi­neer turned Is­raeli states­man who served three times as de­fense min­is­ter, sought to forge closer ties with the United States and be­came a mentor, pa­tron and some­time critic of Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu, died Jan. 7 at his home in Savyon, near Tel Aviv. He was 93.

Mr. Arens died in his sleep, ac­cord­ing to Is­raeli news re­ports, which did not give a pre­cise cause. “There was no greater pa­triot than him,” Ne­tanyahu said in a state­ment.

Cool and pro­fes­so­rial, with an an­a­lyt­i­cal bent and gen­tle­manly de­meanor, Mr. Arens was one of the last sur­vivors of his coun­try’s found­ing gen­er­a­tion. A for­mer mem­ber of the Ir­gun, the para­mil­i­tary group that fought for Is­raeli in­de­pen­dence un­der British rule, he was both a right­ist and a lib­eral ide­al­ist, a cham­pion of equal rights for Arab Is­raelis who also ad­vo­cated for the an­nex­a­tion of “Judea and Sa­maria,” his pre­ferred term for the Pales­tinian ter­ri­to­ries in the West Bank.

But Mr. Arens, who had stud­ied at MIT and Cal­tech, be­come a fa­vorite of Repub­li­can leg­is­la­tors and worked closely with mem­bers of the Ron­ald Rea­gan ad­min­is­tra­tion, ap­pear­ing fre­quently on Amer­i­can news pro­grams to ar­gue on be­half of Is­rael’s in­va­sion of Le­banon in the sum­mer of 1982.

When De­fense Min­is­ter Ariel Sharon was forced to re­sign one year later, in the af­ter­math of the Sabra and Shatila mas­sacre in Beirut, Mr. Arens took his place. He went on to over­see sweep­ing re­forms that es­tab­lished a new com­mand struc­ture and mis­sile sys­tem, lead­ing to the be­gin­ning of Is­rael’s with­drawal from Le­banon.

Af­ter his ini­tial one-year stint as de­fense min­is­ter — con­sid­ered the coun­try’s sec­ond-high­est of­fice — Mr. Arens held the po­si­tion again in the early 1990s, when he un­suc­cess­fully called for a ground op­er­a­tion to knock out Iraqi Scud mis­siles dur­ing the Per­sian Gulf War, and served as de­fense min­is­ter for a third time in 1999.

“Misha was one of the most im­por­tant min­is­ters of de­fense the state of Is­rael ever had,” Pres­i­dent Reu­ven Rivlin said in a tribute. “He was not a com­man­der or a gen­eral, but a de­voted man of learn­ing who toiled day and night for the se­cu­rity of Is­rael and its ci­ti­zens.”

In­deed, Mr. Arens in­sisted he was more in­ter­ested in de­sign­ing jet planes than in nav­i­gat­ing the tur­bu­lence of Is­raeli pol­i­tics. Be­fore launch­ing his po­lit­i­cal ca­reer in the 1970s, he played a key role in the de­vel­op­ment of Is­rael’s aero­space in­dus­try, teach­ing some of the coun­try’s first aero­nau­ti­cal en­gi­neer­ing stu­dents as a pro­fes­sor at the Tech­nion, a lead­ing re­search univer­sity in Haifa.

He also served as vice pres­i­dent for en­gi­neer­ing at Is­rael Air­craft In­dus­tries, where he shep­herded the de­vel­op­ment of new mis­sile sys­tems and laid the ground­work for the Lavie, a high-tech jet fighter that was de­vel­oped us­ing $1.5 bil­lion of U.S. aid money — fund­ing that Mr. Arens was widely cred­ited with ob­tain­ing.

When the air­craft was aban­doned in 1987, amid pres­sure from the U.S. gov­ern­ment and con­cerns over its mount­ing cost, Mr. Arens re­sponded by re­sign­ing from his cab­i­net po­si­tion (he was then serv­ing as min­is­ter with­out port­fo­lio) and declar­ing that Is­rael had made “a ter­ri­ble mis­take.”

Mr. Arens’s most en­dur­ing po­lit­i­cal legacy is prob­a­bly his role in launch­ing the ca­reer of Ne­tanyahu, a charis­matic fur­ni­ture sales­man — and fam­ily friend — whom Mr. Arens hired as his No. 2 af­ter be­ing ap­pointed am­bas­sador to the United States.

Liken­ing their re­la­tion­ship to that of a fa­ther and son, Mr. Arens helped Ne­tanyahu gain his next post­ing, as am­bas­sador to the United Na­tions, and re­hired Ne­tanyahu as his deputy while serv­ing as Is­rael’s for­eign min­is­ter in the late 1980s.

When Prime Min­is­ter Yitzhak Shamir was de­feated in the 1992 gen­eral elec­tion, Mr. Arens was widely con­sid­ered the front-run­ner to take his place as leader of Likud.

In­stead, Mr. Arens an­nounced that he would step aside, say­ing he be­lieved in “ser­vice, not servi­tude.” His de­ci­sion en­abled Ne­tanyahu to fill the void in the party’s lead­er­ship and win a first term as prime min­is­ter in 1996, with Mr. Arens serv­ing as a cam­paign di­rec­tor.

He staged a short-lived come­back bid just three years later, amid what he de­scribed as a “cri­sis in the Likud,” which had lost sev­eral prom­i­nent mem­bers, but was de­feated by Ne­tanyahu and left the Knes­set for good in 2003.

“I felt I had done my thing,” Mr. Arens said by way of ex­pla­na­tion, ac­cord­ing to the Is­raeli news­pa­per Haaretz. “Pol­i­tics was not my pro­fes­sion. It’s not a pleas­ant job.”

Moshe Arens was born in Kau­nas, Lithua­nia, on Dec. 7, 1925. His mother was a den­tist and his fa­ther was a busi­ness­man. The fam­ily lived in Riga, the cap­i­tal of Latvia, be­fore mi­grat­ing to New York in 1939, where Mr. Arens at­tended high school along­side Henry Kissinger. Other class­mates in­cluded Muriel Eisen­berg, whom he later mar­ried. In ad­di­tion to his wife, sur­vivors in­clude four chil­dren and nine grand­chil­dren.

As a teenager in New York, Mr. Arens joined Be­tar, a Zion­ist youth or­ga­ni­za­tion founded by Ze’ev Jabotin­sky, who called for a Jewish state on both sides of the Jor­dan River and served as an ide­o­log­i­cal lodestar for Me­nachem Be­gin and other right-wing Is­raeli leaders.

Mr. Arens served in the U.S. Army Corps of En­gi­neers dur­ing World War II and re­ceived a bach­e­lor’s de­gree from MIT be­fore mov­ing to Is­rael in 1948, at the out­break of the coun­try’s war for in­de­pen­dence. Against the wishes of his fa­ther, he joined the Ir­gun — in­spired to fight for a Jewish state, he said, by the loss of friends and fam­ily mem­bers dur­ing the Holo­caust.

In peace­time, he re­turned to the United States to study at the Cal­i­for­nia In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy, where he re­ceived a master’s de­gree in aero­nau­ti­cal en­gi­neer­ing in 1953 be­fore join­ing sta­te­owned Is­rael Air­craft In­dus­tries, now known as Is­rael Aero­space In­dus­tries. His work there earned him the Is­rael De­fense Prize in 1971, two years be­fore he was first elected to the Knes­set.

Upon re­tir­ing, Mr. Arens wrote books in­clud­ing “Flags Over the War­saw Ghetto” (2009), which high­lighted the role mem­bers of Be­tar played in the War­saw ghetto upris­ing of 1943. He also worked as a weekly colum­nist at Haaretz, where he some­times ven­tured crit­i­cism of his old pro­tege.

Ne­tanyahu, he said, had made a mis­take in ac­cept­ing gifts while in of­fice — be­hav­ior that led state pros­e­cu­tors to rec­om­mend that he be in­dicted on bribery and fraud charges. And the con­tro­ver­sial “na­tion-state” bill, passed in July with Ne­tanyahu’s sup­port, was “a need­less law and dam­ag­ing to Is­rael,” Mr. Arens wrote.

Still, Mr. Arens re­mained be­hind Ne­tanyahu. “Should he leave,” he wrote in March, “it will be dif­fi­cult to find a re­place­ment of his cal­iber.”


Is­raeli De­fense Min­is­ter Moshe Arens, right, and Is­raeli Prime Min­is­ter Yitzhak Shamir at Ben Gu­rion Air­port in July 1984.

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