Moshe Arens

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Moshe Arens

Moshe Arens (born 1925) was an aeronautical engineer who became a leading Israeli statesman, serving as ambassador, minister without portfolio, and defense minister.

Moshe Arens was born in December 1925 in Kovno (Kaunas), Lithuania. His mother was a dentist and his father a businessman. In 1939 he immigrated with his family to the United States where he graduated from high school in New York City and served in the United States Army Corps of Engineers during World War II. He secured a B.S. degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology but went to Israel at the outbreak of its 1948 war of independence and served in the Irgun Zvai Leumi under the overall leadership led by Menachem Begin. After the war he settled in Mevo Betar but returned to the United States in 1951 to study at the California Institute of Technology where he received an M.A. degree in aeronautical engineering in 1953. He then worked for a number of years on jet engine development in the aviation industry in the United States.

In 1957 Arens returned to Israel and took a position as an associate professor of aeronautical engineering at the Technion (Israel Institute of Technology) in Haifa. He joined Israel Aircraft Industries in 1962, where he became vice president for engineering, while continuing his relationship with the Technion. He was involved in the design of airplanes and the development of missiles and won the Israel Defense Prize in 1971. He was active in Herut Party politics from the outset and was elected to the Knesset (parliament) in 1974. After the Likud election victory of 1977 he became chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. He voted against the Camp David Accords in 1978, but subsequently supported the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty of 1979 as an established fact.

Arens was appointed ambassador to Washington in February where he was well regarded and gained substantial respect. He was seen as cool and articulate and was known for his reliance on detail and logic; he thought and calculated as an engineer. He listened to positions, contemplated them carefully, and provided thoughtful responses. He had close links and a long association with the United States and was among Israel's senior politicians who knew and understood the United States well. He spoke both Hebrew and English with an American accent and tended to speak English in a rapid-fire, somewhat professorial tone.

He regarded the West Bank (Judea and Samaria) as an integral part of Israel in keeping with the views of Vladimir Jabotinsky and Menachem Begin: these territories are historically part of Israel, and they serve a security purpose.

In many respects Arens was an ideological hawk and sought the maximum for Israel, but he often proposed and sought to implement practical/pragmatic policies as a means of achieving his objectives. In 1983 he became defense minister after Ariel Sharon resigned the post following the Kahan Commission's investigation into the massacres at the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps outside Beirut. As minister of defense Arens established a series of operating principles. Reflecting a lack of experience in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), he permitted the generals to do the fighting while he concentrated his efforts on support and policy. His experience was in defense-related industry, and he supported the military during his political career.

Arens' early opposition to the peace treaty with Egypt in 1979 was based on the extent of Israel's concessions. He thought Israel should have tried to retain its two sophisticated air bases in Sinai so new ones would not have to be built. He remarked in February 1982 that Israel "should have tried for a better deal. It almost seems like madness to spend a billion dollars to build a mirror image of the two air bases, six or seven miles to the east of where they are at the present time." He also thought that the settlers in the Yamit area should have been allowed to stay. Furthermore, Egypt should have agreed to sell Israel oil from the Alma oilfields, which Israel discovered, at below market prices instead of the high spot market price.

Although sometimes seen as a potential successor to Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, Arens did not always see himself in that role. He expressed preference for airplane design rather than politics. In 1982, just prior to becoming ambassador to Washington, he was quoted as saying: "I'm not crazy about it i.e., politics!. It's difficult, frustrating, much of it quite boring, though it has interesting aspects to it. I don't have driving political ambition to become Prime Minister of Israel."

During the 1980s and early 1990s Arens served in government positions as Minister without Portfolio (1983-1984 and 1988), Minister of Foreign Affairs (1988-1990) and again as Minister of Defense (1990-1992). In 1992 he quit politics after Likud's defeat at the ballot box. With 18 years of government service Arens claimed that he had no plans to return in any official capacity. "We let younger people take charge," he said.

After his retirement from active political life Arens wrote Broken Covenant: American Foreign Policy and the Crisis between the U.S. and Israel (1994). He also, served on the Board of Governors of the Technion in Haifa, where he was once a professor, and was a deputy director for the investment firm, Israel Corporation Ltd. In an interview with Michael Kapel (The Australia/Israel Review, March-April 1997) Arens demonstrated sharp political savvy and insight. Describing Arens lifelong contributions to the Israel government Kapel said, "Arens has indelibly left his mark on the nation and many within Israel's cabinet still seek his influence and guidance even today."

Further Reading

Merrill Simon's Moshe Arens: Statesman and Scientist Speaks Out (1988) provides a lengthy collection of statements by Arens and serves as an invaluable guide to his views. The interested reader should also consult more general works on Israeli society and politics. These include: Bernard Reich, Israel: Land of Tradition and Conflict (1985); Asher Arian, Politics in Israel: The Second Generation (Revised edition, 1989); and Bernard Reich and Gershon R. Kieval, Israeli National Security Policy: Political Actors and Perspectives (1988). A major problem at home that had international implications was discussed in Ze'ev Schiff and Ehud Ya'an, Intifada: The Palestine Uprising—Israel's Third Front (1990). Interviews with the Israel statesman can be found in publications such as The Australia/Israel Reviwand the Jewish Bulletin of Northern California.