Moshe Arens, former defense minister and envoy to Washington, dead at 93

‘I loved you as a son loves a father,’ says Netanyahu of his mentor, a founding member of Likud credited with shepherding advances in Israel’s military capabilities

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

Then-defense minister Moshe Arens, center, meets with then-deputy IDF chief of staff Maj. Gen. Ehud Barak and then-head of the southern command Maj. Gen. Yitzhak Mordechai in 1991. (Ofer Lafler/Israel Defense Forces/Defense Ministry's IDF Archive)
Then-defense minister Moshe Arens, center, meets with then-deputy IDF chief of staff Maj. Gen. Ehud Barak and then-head of the southern command Maj. Gen. Yitzhak Mordechai in 1991. (Ofer Lafler/Israel Defense Forces/Defense Ministry's IDF Archive)

Moshe Arens, an English-speaking US-educated aeronautical engineer who rose to become Israel’s three-time defense minister and mentored a young Benjamin Netanyahu at the start of his career, died on Monday at age 93.

Born in Kaunas, Lithuania in 1925, Arens moved with his family to Riga, Latvia in 1927, then to the US just before World War II in 1939.

He attended high school in the US, served in the US Army Corps of Engineers in WWII, then immigrated to Israel and joined the right-wing Irgun paramilitary group, which immediately sent him to North Africa to help organize Jewish communities seeking to immigrate to Israel. He returned to Israel in 1949 and soon became a key member of the nascent Herut party, the progenitor of today’s Likud.

Between 1951 and 1957, he studied aeronautical engineering at MIT and Caltech in the US, then returned to Israel to teach in the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology, Israel’s most prestigious technical college. He earned a tenured professorship there by 1961, at just 36 years old. In 1962, he was appointed deputy head of Israel Aircraft Industries, a position he held until 1971 and in which he helped direct Israel’s major indigenous fighter-jet project, the Kfir, or “young lion,” as well as Israel’s first indigenous cargo plane, the Arava, or “willow,” which took its first flight in 1969.

Developed from the Israeli Nesher fighter jet, itself an adapted version of the French Mirage, the Kfir marked a major, if temporary, shift for Israel following the French arms embargo of 1967 toward a home-grown air superiority capability. It entered service in 1975, but never served a significant combat role, as the Israel Air Force began its shift toward US-made fighters the following year, with the receipt of the country’s first F-15s from the US. By the Lebanon War in 1982, US-made F-15s and F-16s, adapted to Israeli needs, had already become the Jewish state’s primary air superiority platform.

Former defense minister Moshe Arens in his home in Savyon on July 28, 2016. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Arens’s contributions as an engineer and manager in Israel’s defense industries, and particularly his role with the Kfir, earned him the 1971 Israel Defense Prize, which is given each year by the country’s president.

He first entered the Knesset on the slate of Herut, Likud’s progenitor, in 1973, serving for the next 19 years until his first retirement from politics in 1992. He returned to the Knesset between 1999 and 2003.

Arens declined to serve as defense minister when offered the position in 1980 over his criticism of the peace treaty with Egypt — he voted against the treaty in the Knesset — and was appointed instead Israel’s ambassador to the US in 1982. In 1983, he returned to Israel to finally take up the defense post after Ariel Sharon was removed from the position as part of the fallout from the Lebanon war. As defense minister, he oversaw a reorganization of the army’s ground forces into the Ground Forces Command and the establishment of the Homefront Command.

In the 1980s, Arens was heavily involved in pushing for the development of yet another generation of homegrown multirole fighter-bomber, the Lavi, Hebrew for “lion cub.” Developed by a much poorer Israel than today’s, with a development tab that ran to some $1.5 billion, the program was finally canceled in 1987 in a razor-thin 12-11 vote in Israel’s cabinet, after just three prototypes had been built and only a year after the fighter’s first successful test flight.

Arens viewed the fighter’s development as key to enabling Israel to design its air forces without having to adapt them from the baseline needs of the American military, and as playing a key role in helping to grow an indigenous Israeli industrial capacity and aerospace capability.

US President George H. Bush (right) meets in the White House Oval Office on March 13, 1989 in Washington with Israel’s then-foreign minister Moshe Arens. (AP Photo/Doug Mills)

In a 2013 oped, Arens lamented that the Lavi, Israel’s nimbler, software-enhanced answer to the American fighter jet, constituted “the world’s most advanced fighter aircraft” when it was developed, and, he added, would have allowed Israel’s IAI to fulfill “its potential to become a rival to Boeing, Lockheed, Grumman or General Dynamics.”

Arens became a “minister without portfolio” in the national unity government formed in 1984 with the Labor party.

In 1988 he was appointed foreign minister, but returned to the Defense Ministry in 1990 for two years. He was appointed defense minister again by Netanyahu for a brief stint in 1999.

Arens had been a key mentor for an ambitious young Benjamin Netanyahu, taking him to the Washington embassy in 1982, then backing him for UN ambassador in 1984 and deputy minister in the Foreign Ministry in 1988 — Netanyahu’s first significant public service positions.

A consistent right-wing voice credited with shepherding dramatic advances in Israel’s aeronautics industry and military capabilities, Arens had a reputation as a man of principle.

Then-defense minister Moshe Arens, left, and then-prime minister Yitzhak Shamir, center, visit a military site in 1991. (Moshe Einav/Defense Ministry’s IDF Archive)

He has opposed Palestinian statehood in the West Bank and Gaza, suggesting instead that Palestinians could receive Israeli citizenship as part of a binational state. He also opposed the nation-state law and advocated for full equality and better integration for Israel’s minorities. He served as a member of the board of Ariel University Center of Samaria, in the northern West Bank city of Ariel.

After leaving politics, Arens researched and published a book on the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, “Flags Over the Warsaw Ghetto.”

His death was lamented on Monday by Israeli leaders from across the political spectrum.

Calling Arens “my teacher and master,” Netanyahu said in a statement Monday that Arens “did wonders to strengthen Israel as our ambassador in Washington, as foreign minister, as chairman of the [Knesset] Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, and as defense minister time and again…. 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, I loved you as a son loves a father.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, and former defense minister Moshe Arens, right, at an evening marking Arens’s 90th birthday at the Begin Center in Jerusalem on December 23, 2015. (Flash90)

Former IDF chief Benny Gantz, now head of the Israel Resilience party, called Arens “a man of truth, a patriot and a national leader, a public figure honored and cherished by all, always at the call of his people and country.”

Arens’s “contribution to the army’s strength through the establishment of the Ground Forces Command was one of the most important components in the development of the IDF’s operational capabilities,” Gantz added.

President Reuven Rivlin hailed Arens as “a man of honor who never flinched from the fight. Misha was one of the most important ministers of defense the State of Israel ever had. 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…. Misha was a man of maturity, determination and boundless love for our country.”

Former Labor party leader and current Jewish Agency chair Isaac Herzog said Arens “was an example of a clean and sincere leader and public servant, who always spoke his mind and contributed immensely to Israel’s security and standing among the world’s nations. Even when we disagreed, we respected each other.”

Herzog added that alongside Arens’s “strident” right-wing views, “he supported Israel’s democracy and the struggle for full equality for its minorities.”

Labor leader Avi Gabbay hailed Arens as “exemplary, honest, wise, a man who knew how to make difficult decisions. In an era when the rule of law is under assault, his absence will be sorely felt,” Gabbay said in an apparent jab at Netanyahu’s graft probes.

Moshe Arens (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Moshe Arens (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Education Minister Naftali Bennett, head of the New Right party, called Arens “a Zionist beacon, a groundbreaking defense minister…who spent his entire life working to strengthen Israel’s security, in the sciences, in aeronautics, as defense minister, as diplomat, as author and historian.”

Arens died at his home in Savyon in central Israel. He leaves behind his wife Muriel, four children and nine grandchildren.

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