Tribute: Moshe Arens, One of Israel’s Greatest Defenders
Moshe Arens, who served multiple times as both as Minister of Defense and Minister of Foreign Affairs, was much more than a career politician. He was a man who dedicated his life to defending the State of Israel and guiding it towards greatness. Throughout his life, Arens was never afraid to do what he thought was right, no matter the political costs or how hard the choices were that he had to make.
Ideology didn’t matter to Arens. He could be a pragmatic centrist on some issues while a uncompromising hawk on others. Despite sometimes fierce opposition to his maverick ideas, Moshe Arens never compromised his principles.
Moshe Arens was born in Kaunas, Lithuania, in 1925, and moved with his family to Latvia in 1927. In 1939, with the spector of war looming large, Arens fled to the United States. He served in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers during the war.
The Jewish community of his native Latvia suffered massive losses during the Holocaust, mostly at the hands of Latvians. About the tragedy that befell his homeland, Arens remarked, “I could not understand where this evil had come from. Yet, it had been there all this time, beneath the ground.” Shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union, Arens told the Latvian defense minister, in no uncertain terms, that Latvia would have to acknowledge its role in the Holocaust if it wanted good relations with Israel.
Arens and his family relocated to Israel in 1948, shortly before the state was officially established. Arens settled with American members of Betar (a Zionist youth party) in the border settlement of Mevo Betar. He then joined the Irgun and became one of the Herut’s founding members. (Herut was the precursor to the modern right-wing Likud party).
In 1951, after being unable to find a job due to his unorthodox political views, Arens returned to the United States and studied first mechanical engineering at MIT and later aeronautical engineering at CalTech. He then returned to Israel and served as professor at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa from 1957 to 1962. Afterwards, he became the deputy CEO of Israel Aerospace Industries (now Israel’s largest defense company) and served from 1962 to 1971. He was awarded the Israel Defense Prize in 1971.
Arens turned his attention to politics after the end of the Yom Kippur War. He was elected to the Knesset in 1973, and then re-elected in 1977. At that point, he served as chairman of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. In 1979, Arens came into his own as a political force to be reckoned with by refusing to approve the Camp David Accords and Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty. In his view, Israel’s complete withdrawal from the Sinai Peninsula was too great a price to pay. Arens voiced his opposition to the deal in his trademark no-nonsense style. “The Egyptians attacked us four times, in the War of Independence, in the  Sinai campaign, the Six-Day War and the Yom Kippur War. They were defeated four times. You will not find any other example in history of an aggressor getting back everything it lost in war. It’s neither logical nor reasonable.”
The 1980s marked a period of frequent career changes for Moshe Arens. He first left the Knesset in 1982 to become the ambassador to the United States, naming a then-unknown Benjamin Netanyahu as his deputy. In so doing, he helped launch the latter’s political career. Arens then moved on to replace Ariel Sharon as Defense Minister the following year under Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, and he oversaw the withdrawal of Israeli forces from Lebanon. Arens also implemented extensive organizational changes within the IDF that resulted in innovations such as a missile defense system, ground forces command and a special tactics division.
In 1984, Arens returned to the Knesset and was appointed Minister without Portfolio. During this time, Arens advocated for the Lavi fighter jet, a project being developed by his former employer IAI that would have been Israel’s first natively developed fighter jet. Ultimately though, the Knesset opted to shut down the project in 1987 due to cost overruns, instead opting for cheaper American F-16s.
Arens returned to the diplomatic arena in 1988 with his first appointment as Minister of Foreign Affairs. Joining him was Benjamin Netanyahu who again served as his deputy and subsequently as ambassador to the U.N. Arens remained in this post until 1990.
That same year, Arens was again appointed Minister of Defense. During his tenure, he wrestled with the aftermath of the First Intifada as well as with the implications of the newly signed Oslo Accords. Arens vehemently opposed the Oslo Accords. In a Haaretz op-ed several months before his passing, Arens argued that the Accords involved “negotiating with a terrorist organization” and “implanting this gang of terrorists as the leadership of the Palestinian population in Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip.” Ultimately, he believed, “It is hard to believe that Palestinian terrorism would have reached such a level [as it did in the Second Intifada] had it not been for the leadership provided by the PLO terrorist leadership embedded in the area by the Oslo agreements.” Furthermore, he argued, Oslo marked “Israel’s tacit recognition” of the Palestinians’ right of return, which he called a “weapon against Israel’s very existence.”
In another one of his most defining moments, Arens dealt with the threat of Iraqi SCUD missiles during the first Gulf War. In response to Saddam Hussein’s unprovoked attack against Israel in 1991, Arens lobbied for sending an Israeli commando force to retaliate against Iraq. However, he was overruled by Prime Minister Shamir, who heeded the U.S. call not to get involved in the war.
Arens retired from politics after the election of Yitzhak Rabin but returned briefly in 1999 to serve as Defense Minister under Netanyahu, his former protégé.
Upon his retirement, Arens commented, “I felt I had done my thing. Politics was not my profession. It’s not a pleasant job.” Arens continued to be active in political life by writing eight books as well as many articles for Haaretz. In his columns, Arens continued to be no stranger to controversy. He adamantly opposed the 2005 withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, spoke out against the treatment of Israeli Arabs and defended actions by the Israeli Supreme Court. In addition, despite arguments that such an action would threaten the Jewish character of Israel, Arens advocated for annexing the West Bank and giving its Palestinian residents Israeli citizenship. Despite his maverick views, even those who disagreed with him praised Arens for his grace and tenacity.
When Arens wasn’t writing about politics, he often turned his focus to historical topics, most notably the role that the Betar fighters played in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. His last column for Haaretz was about Simcha Rotem, who passed away last month and had been one of the last surviving members of the Jewish Warsaw Ghetto fighters.
However, Arens’ lasting legacy is his contribution to politics. Arens himself acknowledged this by publishing his appropriately titled autobiography, In Defense of Israel: A Memoir of a Political Life just last year.
After decades of service, Arens came to be regarded as a wise member of the “old guard” and a true political statesman. He helped shape the careers of notable figures such as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and was lauded for his passion and dedication to Israel by figures across the political spectrum. Upon Arens’ passing, Netanyahu remarked, “There was no greater patriot than him. I loved you as a son loves his father.” Israeli President Reuven Rivlin remembered Arens as “a man of honor who never flinched from the fight” and “a devoted man of learning who toiled day and night for the security of Israel and its citizens.”
Arens is survived by his wife Muriel, four children, and many grandchildren.