Moshe Arens, Israeli Statesman and Ex-Defense Minister, Dies at 93

The Israeli defense minister Moshe Arens, left, with fellow leaders of the ruling Likud party in Tel Aviv in 1992. With him, from left, were Ariel Sharon, the housing minister at the time; David Levy, the foreign minister; and Yitzhak Shamir, prime minister.

JERUSALEM — Moshe Arens, the Israeli politician and statesman who was one of the last of his country’s founding generation of right-wing, liberal Zionists, and who held top posts but never achieved his greatest aspirations, died on Monday at his home in Savyon, Israel. He was 93.

A son-in-law, Dr. Itzhak Fried, said Mr. Arens had died in his sleep.

A former member of the Irgun militia and a young leader of the revisionist Betar Youth Movement, Mr. Arens remained until his last days a beacon of Israel’s ideological right. After helping to found the Herut (Freedom) party, he reached the top echelons of its outgrowth, the Likud, and was seen by many as the natural heir of the conservative prime ministers Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir.

Mr. Arens served three times as defense minister and also as foreign minister and as Israel’s ambassador to the United States.

Widely considered an outstanding defense minister, Mr. Arens was respected by the military and helped shape Israel’s defense doctrine. A champion of Israeli self-reliance, he fostered Israel’s aerospace program and became the godfather of one of the country’s most ambitious, though ill-fated, projects — to build a state-of-the-art fighter plane, the Lavi.

“There was no greater patriot than him,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in tribute. He had grown up in the same revisionist movement, and his political career was nurtured and then promoted by Mr. Arens.

Though Mr. Arens was one of the longest-surviving members of Israel’s founding generation, his grandest political and national goals remained unfulfilled. An aeronautical engineer by training who lacked charisma and the common touch, he never made it to the premiership, while the Lavi was grounded under intense pressure from the Pentagon.

Mr. Arens, also known by his nickname, Misha, served in the United States Army Corps of Engineers and left for Israel in 1948 to join the fight for independence. He pursued a career in engineering before winning a seat in the Knesset, or Parliament, on the Likud ticket in 1973.

A somewhat dour academic and a paragon of politeness and correctitude, Mr. Arens seemed increasingly out of place in the hurly-burly of the Likud. But his ideological credentials and acumen continued to propel him up the ranks of the party, which swept into power on a popular tide in 1977 and has since then dominated Israeli politics for many years.

Mr. Arens veered right of Mr. Begin, his mentor, voting against the Camp David Accords with Egypt in 1978 because he believed that a total withdrawal from Sinai was too heavy a price. His hawkishness helped earn him an appointment as ambassador to the United States in 1982, a time when Israel was drawing headlines and international criticism for invading Lebanon to flush out the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Yet Mr. Arens proved adept at making Israel’s case in the United States and came to be valued by Reagan administration officials as an Israeli government insider, according to the journalist Wolf Blitzer in his 1985 book “Between Washington and Jerusalem.”

Mr. Arens returned home in 1983 to take up the post of defense minister, replacing Ariel Sharon, a decorated general who had been forced to resign after a tribunal found him indirectly but personally responsible for the massacre by Israeli-allied Lebanese Phalange militiamen at the Sabra and Shatila Palestinian refugee camps near Beirut.

The Israeli Army was spread thin in Lebanon, and Mr. Arens set about consolidating the forces there. “He basically undid what Sharon did,” said Ehud Yaari, co-author of the 1984 book “Israel’s Lebanon War.”

Mr. Arens won support for his work in Lebanon but was ultimately unable to parlay that into what he had hoped would be his legacy: the Lavi. He lobbied for the projectfrom its inception in 1980. The United States government at first gave a green light for the transfer of technology, and Congress approved an allocation of $250 million a year through American military aid.

But the Americans later withdrew their support, largely because of the ballooning cost, and the project was canceled in 1987, its proponents in Israel having been defeated in the cabinet by a single vote.

The demise of the project released into the market hundreds of engineers with cutting-edge knowledge and experience, giving Israel’s then-burgeoning high-tech industry an infusion of talent.

After the defeat of his beloved project, Mr. Arens remained in government as a minister without portfolio, as foreign minister and then again as defense minister until 1992, when Likud was voted out of power. He returned briefly in 1999 to challenge his own protégé, Mr. Netanyahu, for the party leadership, but lost and served briefly in Mr. Netanyahu’s cabinet before leaving politics for good.

“Misha was one of the most important ministers of defense the State of Israel ever had,” said President Reuven Rivlin, another scion of the revisionist Herut movement. “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.”

Moshe Arens was born in Kovno, now Kaunas, Lithuania, on Dec. 27, 1925, and moved with his family to the United States at 13. He graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and served in the United States Army Corps of Engineers in World War II as a technical sergeant before leaving to fight in Israel’s 1948 war of independence with Mr. Begin’s right-wing underground militia, the Irgun.

After going back to the United States for graduate studies at the California Institute of Technology and working in the American aviation industry, Mr. Arens returned to Israel in 1957. He worked as an associate professor of aeronautical engineering at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, and as vice president for engineering at the state-owned Israel Aircraft Industries. He married Muriel Eisenberg and had four children, Yigal, Ranan, Aliza and Rut. They and his wife survive him, as do 10 grandchildren and one great-granddaughter.

Mr. Arens once told Mr. Blitzer that “Israel exists in the Middle East, not in the Middle West of the United States,” and that he was of the view that it was up to the Arabs to prove that they wanted peace with Israel, not the other way around.

Even so, he was a strong advocate for equal civil rights for Israel’s Arab citizens, and he supported making practical arrangements with the Palestinians, approaching that issue with a regard for basic human rights. He backed the Shamir Plan, first proposed in 1989, to hold Palestinian elections in the occupied territories, to be followed by talks and limited autonomy. But the initiative failed to get off the ground.

Mr. Arens later denounced the interim Oslo Accords, which were reached with the Palestine Liberation Organization in the mid-1990s, and strongly oppose Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005. Eschewing the current Palestinian leadership as a true partner for peace, he advised patienc. “I say proceed slowly,” he said in an interview in 2016. “Everyone wants to know what’s the end game. I don’t know what it will be.”

Still, he continued to be a voice of moral clarity, writing regular columns in the liberal Haaretz newspaper into his 90s, and he did not shy away from criticizing the Netanyahu government. In 2016, when Mr. Netanyahu appointed an ultranationalist rival, Avigdor Lieberman, as defense minister, Mr. Arens described the move as a “murky” political deal. (Mr. Lieberman resigned late last year.)

More recently, Mr. Arens rejected the passage of a contentious nation-state law that enshrined national self-determination as “unique to the Jewish people,” made Jewish building a priority and downgraded Arabic from an official language alongside Hebrew to one with a special status. Mr. Arens said the legislation, heavily promoted by Mr. Netanyahu, was “needless,” “damaging to Israel” and gratuitously insulting to the country’s Arab citizens when, he said, Israel’s Jewishness was not in question.

Mr. Arens devoted his later years to writing. In his 2011 book, “Flags Over the Warsaw Ghetto,” he brought to light the previously unrecognized role of the Betar fighters in the 1943 ghetto uprising durning World War II.

His political memoir, “In Defense of Israel,” published last February, conveys a sense of satisfaction with his life’s work.

“I look back in wonder at Israel’s sixty-nine-year history,” he wrote in the epilogue. “In a few decades it has developed into a country well able to defend itself with a dynamic economy growing at a rapid rate, while simultaneously fulfilling its declared mission and absorbing millions of Jews in need of a haven.”

Recounting Israel’s victories in wars of survival and defense against waves of terror, he concluded, “It is Israel’s military prowess and economic vitality that has paved the way to progress toward peace with its Arab neighbors. Arab nations have come to realize that, like it or not, Israel is here to stay.”

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