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Veteran Likud Party hawk takes Israel’s defense reins

JERUSALEM, Jan. 26 (JTA) — Veteran Likud politician Moshe Arens has agreed to serve as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s defense minister. Arens’ decision came one day after he lost a bid to unseat Netanyahu as party leader. According to the official results of Monday’s Likud primary, Netanyahu received garnered 81.7 percent of the vote to Arens’ 18.7 percent. Only 31 percent of the party’s eligible 170,000 voters took part in the primary. Netanyahu had offered the post to Arens, 73, after he fired Yitzhak Mordechai on Saturday night for negotiating with centrist politicians mounting a challenge to topple the government. Mordechai in turn announced Monday night that he is running as the prime ministerial candidate of the centrists, who also include former army chief Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, former Likud Knesset member Dan Meridor, and former Tel Aviv Mayor Roni Milo. Like Mordechai, Meridor is a former member of Netanyahu’s Cabinet. Netanyahu announced Arens’ decision at a news conference Tuesday at which he was flanked by Arens and Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon. Pointing out that Arens twice served as defense minister for previous Likud governments, Netanyahu said Arens is “widely regarded as one of the most experienced and knowledgeable people regarding the state of Israel’s security.” Netanyahu described himself, Sharon and Arens as the team that would lead Likud to victory over the Labor party in the May 17 elections. He made no reference to the centrist challenge led by Mordechai. While Mordechai had been perhaps the most moderate member of Netanyahu’s Cabinet, Arens joins Sharon in holding long-standing hawkish views. Arens’ stance on the peace process prompted members of the left-wing Meretz Party to say that they would oppose his appointment when it comes up for Knesset approval later this week. Arens had served as Netanyahu’s political mentor at the start of the premier’s political career and helped him to become Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations in 1984. But he became increasingly critical of the premier’s leadership and policies following Netanyahu’s election in 1996. Earlier this month, Arens said he launched his bid for the party leadership to rescue Likud from “deep crisis.” Arens denied Tuesday that he had demanded guarantees from Netanyahu regarding his position in the government should the Likud win the upcoming elections. Arens also rejected suggestions that he could achieve little in the time remaining before the vote. “Four months of security for the state of Israel is a very long period,” he said.