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Moshe Arens, Israeli statesman and ex-defense minister, dies at 93

Mr. Arens also served as ambassador to the United States and foreign minister.
Mr. Arens also served as ambassador to the United States and foreign minister.(AP/file 2001)

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

A former member of the Irgun militia, 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.

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

Widely considered an outstanding civilian 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 an indigenous state-of-the-art fighter plane, the Lavi.

“There was no greater patriot than him,” said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who grew up in the same revisionist movement and whose 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, was born in Kovno, now Kaunas, Lithuania, and moved with his family to the United States at 13. He graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and served as a technical sergeant in the US Army Corps of Engineers in World War II before leaving to fight in Israel’s 1948 war of independence with Begin’s right-wing underground militia, the Irgun.

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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 dominated Israeli politics for many years since.

Mr. Arens veered right of Begin, his mentor, voting against the Camp David Accords with Egypt in 1978 because he believed 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 to audiences in the United States and came to be valued by Reagan administration officials as an Israeli government insider.