Born in Kaunas, Lithuania in 1925, Arens moved with his family to Riga, Latvia in 1927, then to the US just before World War II in 1939.
He attended high school in the US, served in the US Army Corps of Engineers in WWII, then immigrated to Israel and joined the right-wing Irgun paramilitary group, which immediately sent him to North Africa to help organize Jewish communities seeking to immigrate to Israel. He returned to Israel in 1949 and soon became a key member of the nascent Herut party, the progenitor of today’s Likud.
Between 1951 and 1957, he studied aeronautical engineering at MIT and Caltech in the US, then returned to Israel to teach in the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology, Israel’s most prestigious technical college. He earned a tenured professorship there by 1961, at just 36 years old. In 1962, he was appointed deputy head of Israel Aircraft Industries, a position he held until 1971 and in which he helped direct Israel’s major indigenous fighter-jet project, the Kfir, as well as Israel’s first indigenous cargo plane, the Arava, which took its first flight in 1969.
Developed from the Israeli Nesher fighter jet, itself an adapted version of the French Mirage, the Kfir marked a major, if temporary, shift for Israel following the French arms embargo of 1967 toward a home-grown air superiority capability. It entered service in 1975, but never served a significant combat role, as the Israel Air Force began its shift toward US-made fighters the following year, with the receipt of the country’s first F-15s from the US. By the Lebanon War in 1982, US-made F-15s and F-16s, adapted to Israeli needs, had already become the Jewish state’s primary air superiority platform.
Arens’s contributions as an engineer and manager in Israel’s defense industries, and particularly his role with the Kfir, earned him the 1971 Israel Defense Prize, which is given each year by the country’s president.
He first entered the Knesset on the slate of Herut, Likud’s progenitor, in 1973, serving for the next 19 years until his first retirement from politics in 1992. He returned to the Knesset between 1999 and 2003.
Arens declined to serve as defense minister when offered the position in 1980 over his criticism of the peace treaty with Egypt — he voted against the treaty in the Knesset — and was appointed instead Israel’s ambassador to the US in 1982. In 1983, he returned to Israel to finally take up the defense post after Ariel Sharon was removed from the position as part of the fallout from the Lebanon war. As defense minister, he oversaw a reorganization of the army’s ground forces into the Ground Forces Command and the establishment of the Homefront Command.
He became a “minister without portfolio” in the national unity government formed the following year, 1984, with the Labor party.
In 1988, he was appointed foreign minister, but returned to the Defense Ministry in 1990 for two years. He was appointed defense minister again by Netanyahu for a brief stint in 1999.
Arens had been a key mentor for an ambitious young Benjamin Netanyahu, taking him to the Washington embassy in 1982, then backing him for UN ambassador in 1984 and deputy minister in the Foreign Ministry in 1988 — Netanyahu’s first significant public service positions.
A consistent right-wing voice credited with shepherding dramatic advances in Israel’s aeronautics industry and military capabilities, Arens had a reputation as a man of principle.
He has opposed Palestinian statehood in the West Bank and Gaza, suggesting instead that Palestinians could receive Israeli citizenship as part of a binational state. He also opposed the nation-state law and advocated for full equality and better integration for Israel’s minorities. He served as a member of the board of Ariel University Center of Samaria, in the northern West Bank city of Ariel.
After leaving politics, Arens researched and published a book on the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, “Flags Over the Warsaw Ghetto.”
His death was lamented on Monday by Israeli leaders from across the political spectrum.
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