Moshe Arens: The man who didn’t want to be prime minister

I met Arens in the late 1970s, when he was a member of Knesset and chaired the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee and I was the parliamentary correspondent for Israel Television.

Moshe Arens (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Moshe Arens
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Moshe Arens passed away this week at the age of 93. His death elicited a wave of affection and sympathy. Despite his advanced age, Arens remained active in the Israeli arena, expressing his voice in writing and in speech. The wave of sympathy not only was for this special person, but also reflected a longing for the character traits he embodied as a public official and politician – traits that are scarce in the public arena today.
I met Arens in the late 1970s, when he was a member of Knesset and chaired the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee and I was the parliamentary correspondent for Israel Television. We met again in Washington, when I was the embassy spokesperson and Arens was appointed to serve as Israel’s ambassador in the United States. To my surprise, he asked me to stay on in my position instead of bringing his own confidant.
Though he realized then, and throughout the years, that we held different views, he still believed, as also I did, that we could work together. Accordingly, he asked me to join his team when he returned to Israel to serve as defense minister. Our paths crossed again during the Gulf War in the early 1990s, when he was defense minister and I was the IDF spokesman.
I met with Arens many times throughout the years, and each time I appreciated his sober vision, wisdom and decency even more. I decided that “nobility” was the best word to describe his character, because many of the things he did in his life stemmed from this rare quality. In 1984, for example, he yielded his position as defense minister to help facilitate the formation of a national unity government of the Likud and the Alignment (the Labor-led bloc). The plan called for a rotation in the role of prime minister, but not the role of defense minister, which was slated for Yitzhak Rabin.
I DON’T know examples of other people who, like Arens, gave up such a lofty position for the sake of a national objective. 
Arens reached great heights in his public career – almost the summit, but not quite. Twice he was within reach but stepped back, allowing others to pass him. I never understood why. I do know that he didn’t enjoy the political struggles the Israeli arena demands. Did he harbor regrets? I don’t think so, because he was always proud of his activity and achievements during his 70 years in Israel.
Arens was an advocate of the Greater Land of Israel and strongly opposed withdrawing from any territory held by Israel. He voted against the peace treaty with Egypt and the withdrawal from Sinai, and opposed the Oslo Accords. Arens believed the Land of Israel belongs to the Jewish people. But in his vision – and here is where he confused so many people – Jews and Arabs would live together in co-existence in the one land, side by side.
His humanistic-liberal outlook didn’t contradict his political stance; it complemented it. “Yes, it’s possible,” he said, and made great efforts to bring Jews and Arabs closer and to foster political and civil equality. He did this as minister of minority affairs and in every position he held before and after. He never was concerned about the political repercussions of this stance and he was always a highly respected figure in the Likud.
There were some who belittled him. There was something foreign about him. His years in the US shaped a person who was a bit reticent, distant, not “one of the gang.” I remember that during his first months as defense minister, many wondered how someone who had never served a single minute in the IDF could be Israel’s defense minister (though he had worked many years in the defense industry and had chaired the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee).
They were wrong, of course. Arens served as defense minister three times and was successful each time, making a significant impact on the IDF and Israel’s defense array.
UPON ASSUMING his post, he ordered the creation of the Ground Forces Command. After the Gulf War, he established the Home Front Command, recognizing that the State of Israel was facing a new front. There were many other decisions, of course, which also demonstrated his fitness to direct Israel’s defense effort.
An aeronautical engineer by profession, Arens was a strong proponent of defense R&D in Israel. He believed, correctly, that Israel could accomplish whatever it set out to do. His dream was an Israeli fighter aircraft, the Lavi. Here too, as usual, some disparaged him and thought he was pursuing an illusion. But the plane flew and, at least in his mind, could have been the world’s best fighter aircraft.
But other considerations arose and the government decided to stop developing the Lavi. Until his dying day, I can report, his belief in the Lavi project never wavered and he greatly regretted the government’s decision to order a “forced landing” for the project.
Though he engaged in enormous projects with huge budgets, he retained a common touch. He was never arrogant, aloof, unkind or insulting. One of the people he mentored was Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Arens appointed Netanyahu to serve as his deputy in Washington and helped him launch his political career. He was sometimes critical of Netanyahu, even openly, as expressed in his op-eds in Haaretz. Nonetheless, he still saw Netanyahu as a world-class statesman with many talents.
Hundreds of people came to pay their last respects to Arens, including the president, the prime minister, friends from the defense establishment, the Foreign Ministry and other public institutions, and many others who met him during his long life and felt the need to thank him. I had the privilege of presiding over the funeral ceremony and noted that Moshe Arens had numerous friends and not a single enemy. I don’t know of any other public figure who left us in such peace, tranquility and great love.
The writer served as media adviser to Moshe Arens.