Eli Yishai, the vice prime minister and minister of industry, trade and labor, is not a senior officer in Israel Defense Forces reserves. He served in the Chief Military Rabbinate. Despite that and unlike most ministers in the Security Cabinet, Yishai (like Shimon Peres and Ophir Pines-Paz) abstained in the August 10 vote to expand ground operations in Lebanon.
The ground operation, which ceased 48 hours after it began, claimed the lives of 33 soldiers and saw dozens wounded, and raised difficult questions regarding its necessity. When asked why he abstained - unlike ministers with prominent military records including Avi Dichter, Shaul Mofaz and Benjamin Ben-Eliezer - Yishai gazes upward and responds, "I relied on siata dishmaya" - Aramaic for heavenly assistance - "but also on experience."
Yishai, age 44, is a member of the Security Cabinet and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's seven-minister forum. He took a hawkish stance from the beginning of the war. In the Security Cabinet meeting in which the July 12 operation in Lebanon was approved, Eli Yishai (and Haim Ramon) opposed deploying ground forces.
"If Hezbollah fires Katyushas, we have to deliver a severe blow to Lebanon's infrastructure, black out Beirut, cut off electricity, turn off the water, destroy bridges, halt industry and flatten entire villages. If there is horrible damage in Lebanon, they will say, 'The Jews are crazy,'" Yishai explains.
He consistently supported this position in Knesset and the cabinet throughout the war.
"No army in the world is more moral than the IDF. If one has to choose between hurting the Israeli home front or the Lebanese home front, I prefer that the Lebanese get hurt. It hurts me to see civilians hurt by our air force, but there is no choice. We cannot be bleeding hearts while our citizens are being hurt. If Lebanese citizens pay the price, they will rise up against Hezbollah. I have proposed that we damage infrastructure and flatten villages because Hezbollah personnel must know they are not immune. We should have made it clear to them that all the residents in villages from which firepower is launched at IDF soldiers, will be warned and required to leave their homes within 48 hours. And later these villages will be bombed from the air. That policy would have assured that Lebanese citizens would not permit Hezbollah to live next to them," Yishai says.
Do you support the establishment of an official committee of inquiry to investigate failures exposed in the war?
"It is important that serious people conduct this inquiry - absolutely not politicians. There has to be a separate examination of military and civilian issues, and first and foremost, the home front's handling of the Katyushas. There has to be an evaluation of the best and most efficient way to examine what happened. If the conclusion is that an official committee of inquiry is the best means, then there is cause to establish one. I do not negate that - I only fear that the deliberations of a committee of that type will cause wars among the Jews that minimize the IDF's achievements. We are experts in minimizing IDF achievements."
Does your reluctance to establish an official committee of inquiry hail from the fear that it may expose failures in the political and military echelons?
"No. I find it heartbreaking that people have started pulling out knives while IDF soldiers are still in Lebanon, before there is any comprehensive examination of what really took place."
Are you aware of the blow the war dealt to the IDF's deterrent ability?
"The IDF's deterrent ability was not damaged. It's true that this was another type of war. This was not a conventional war against an army and tanks, but a war against long-range and short-range missiles. An anti-guerilla war is a different war than those we were accustomed to fighting. No one had the intention of conquering Lebanon in this war. If we had wanted to, we could have done that in a few days. We have to examine how we can improve our deployment against future long-range missile fire from Syria and Iran. In that case, we will probably have no choice but to damage vital infrastructure, including electricity and water."
One of the main goals of the war was freeing three abducted IDF soldiers. That goal has not been fulfilled. Who is to blame?
"We promised to return the kidnapped soldiers, and we must not be silent until Gilad Shalit, Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev return home. We must change the tactics we have employed until now regarding freeing prisoners. We were in Lebanon for 18 years and received no information on Ron Arad. We must enlist all our expertise and experience in this arena and employ all the means at our disposal to return them to Israel, healthy and intact."
Were you surprised by Hezbollah's perseverance and determination?
"No. We know Hezbollah. I did not see perseverance and courage but a desire to commit suicide. They want to die like Hamas operatives who blew themselves up in city streets and cafes. We failed in the psychological war against Hezbollah. It would have been wise to censure Nasrallah's speeches. There was no reason to permit live broadcasts of all of his speeches, which were full of lies. The government information campaign failed to clarify to the public the goals of the war and its objectives, to explain that this was a war against a zealous, extremist organization that Arab nations also are seeking to destroy."
'We will oppose budget cuts'
Should Chief of Staff Dan Halutz resign because of the insensitivity he displayed in calling his bank the day the war erupted to sell his securities?
"The chief of staff is a man of many virtues. He fought with a great deal of talent and, in this case, even if he erred, there is no reason to dismiss him from his position."
Do you agree with the opinion that the war against Hezbollah is not over and that we can expect another round in a few months?
"Absolutely. We must prepare for another war. The IDF must prepare for war against short- and long-range missiles. We were blessed with a miracle in this war. If even 10 percent of the 4,000 missiles fired at Israel had hit citizens, we would have had 400 deaths. The fact that only 39 citizens died proves this was a miracle."
Syrian President Bashar Assad threatened last week that if we do not give back the Golan Heights in negotiations, Syria will conquer the area by force. Do you relate seriously to that threat?
"The Syrians are fully aware of what will happen to them if they declare war against us. There is no question that a war with Syria would be a different type of war than that against Hezbollah guerillas."
How should Israel respond if the Lebanese government fails to implement Security Council Resolution 1701?
"If the Lebanese government fails to implement this decision, international pressure must be brought to bear to force Lebanon to do so. In the cabinet meeting yesterday, I proposed that we present an ultimatum to Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora stating that if Lebanon fails to disarm Hezbollah, we will halt the supply of electric power and water to Beirut for several weeks."
Who is responsible for the fact that the home front was completely unprepared for war and a million people were forced to hide from missiles in shelters?
"The home front must learn from what happened. Maybe the preparation should have been handled differently, despite the fact that the evacuation of 1 million people is no simple matter. We must be attentive to their complaints and examine ways to assist them."
As minister of industry, trade and labor, how do you propose assisting tens of thousands of small business owners who sustained damage in the war?
"We estimate that 80 percent of the 80,000-90,000 business owners from Haifa and northward sustained severe damage. I am in deliberations with the treasury on how the government can compensate them."
Security spending will clearly be left uncut because of the estimated NIS 25 billion cost of the war. Would you help approve a budget that hurts primarily weaker sectors of the population?
"The test of the government, in the socioeconomic arena, will take place when the 2007 budget is presented. I believe Olmert and Hirchson will employ all of their wisdom to guarantee weaker sectors are not harmed. We will firmly oppose any budget cut of that type. It is possible to solve the problem by increasing the national debt and imposing temporary security surtaxes on stronger sectors of the population, as was done in Operation Peace for Galilee in Lebanon. I intend to initiate steps of that type. There is no reason that individuals with large salaries, including ministers, cannot shoulder some of the necessary burden."
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