Looking back in satisfaction
Even after the damning Winograd report, Amir Peretz believes in himself. 'They barely used the word "failure" with regard to me,' he boasts, and claims that the people are ready for a leader of his kind.
As the war became increasingly bogged down, his face assumed a patina of sadness. Even in the autumn after the war he still looked battered. He sat at his desk in the corner of the defense minister's oversized office, solitary and lost. Not entirely understanding what had happened to him. Not exactly understanding what had gone awry. How the great hope of the social-welfare winter had been shattered to smithereens in the Lebanese summer.
But four days before the release of the Winograd report, as well as four hours after, Amir Peretz is completely calm. He has no doubt that he was deeply wronged. He has no doubt that many in the media are out to get him. Maariv, the satiricak show "Eretz Nehederet," the commentators on Channel 2 news. But he refuses to grumble or whine. He is convinced that in the end he will be vindicated. And equally convinced that from this nadir Amir Peretz shall rise again.
His plan of action is clear: to defeat Ehud Barak in the Labor Party internal elections at the end of this month, whether alone or in an alliance with Ami Ayalon. Peretz draws a distinction between his two rivals: Ayalon is legitimate, Barak is not. He does not reject outright a possible deal - Ayalon to defense, Peretz to head of Labor. One way or the other, he is convinced that he has broad, deep grassroots support. He surprised Shimon Peres, he will do the same to Ehud Barak.
The Winograd Committee was right: on July 12, 2006, Amir Peretz asked quite a few correct questions. Between the Prime Minister Ehud Olmert hammer of superficial arrogance and the Chief of Staff Dan Halutz anvil of superficial arrogance, Peretz did all he could. He understood it was impossible to demand the return of the abducted soldiers. He understood that Haifa and Hadera would be hit hard. He understood that the chief of staff's idea of "darkening Lebanon" and the Mossad chief's idea of attacking Syria were dangerous. He understood that Hezbollah had to be hit without getting into a confrontation with the majority in Lebanon. He understood that Israel's army reserves might have to be mobilized.
In contrast to Halutz and Olmert, Peretz was not arrogant. However, the new defense minister - the civilian with the social-welfare agenda - was incapable of controlling the chief of staff or of standing up to the prime minister. The Olmert-Halutz axis largely neutralized Amir Peretz and made him the tragic hero of the politics of the war.
Will Peretz recover? Even though he is a secular socialist, Peretz is a believer. Even after the blow of the Winograd Committee report, he did not lose his faith in himself or his mission. Very late at night, he sent the tea lady home, looked around and described his year at Defense as a period of building and doing. No, he has no intention of disappearing from the landscape. With all his heart and all his soul he is convinced that Israel needs him.
Amir Peretz, the Winograd Committee states in its partial report that the defense minister failed in his task.
"Failure is when you make mistakes, wrong decisions, which stem from irrelevant considerations - the populist use of a military system. But the committee says about me that the defense minister displayed insights that more experienced people did not. That he made a significant contribution to the discussions about the goals of control [in Lebanon]. That he sought to posit a more modest aim for the campaign. That he joined in the decision not to attack Syria. That he clearly learned on the run."
The committee states that you lacked the knowledge and experience a defense minister needs.
"My inexperience is a fact. I arrived with minimal knowledge. But I see this as an advantage, not a disadvantage. Everyone who arrives with excessively broad military knowledge is the prisoner of a conception. He is part of the system. There is no chance that he will present alternatives."
The committee states that you made decisions without orderly consultation with professional bodies.
"I have a chief of staff, I have a director of Military Intelligence, I have a General Staff, I have a political-defense branch of my own [in the Defense Ministry]. Those are systems that are at my disposal. They convened every day. There is no system in the world that maintains a load of consultations on the scale that exists in this building."
The committee finds that your actions lacked a strategic perspective.
"If I am commended by the committee for not agreeing to bring Syria into the arena, isn't that a strategic perspective? Of course it is. If I am commended by the committee for not agreeing to bomb infrastructures in order not to generate escalation that will involve Sunnis and Christians, isn't that a strategic perspective? Of course it is."
The committee states that you did not check the army's preparedness.
"I think that it is absolutely wrong for the defense minister to shoulder [responsibility for the] preparedness of the IDF [Israel Defense Forces]. That is an improper situation. The IDF is supposed to be absolutely prepared. Today, after the difficulties and the gaps were discovered, each unit has a readiness graph. There is a completely different graph for the reserves. The scope of the reserve forces today is unprecedented. There is the feeling of a revolution in the IDF."
In the end, don't you feel that the Winograd Committee report obliges you to leave the Defense Ministry immediately?
"I don't think so. I can say that today we are in a completely different place. It's a simple question: I know what I received when I took over and I know what the situation is today. All those experienced people who sat here left me an army with no training, no reserves, no budget backing, no technological development against rockets, no feeling of emergency that war would break out. With a defensive conception for each arena. In contrast, I will leave behind an army with a completely different spirit: good leadership, more reservists, more training, more equipment, more technological development."
Still, in a month - after Labor's internal elections - you might not be here.
"I think that at the end of a year I can look back and sum up the year with satisfaction. I can tell the prime minister wholeheartedly that after the Labor primaries I am interested in moving to a different position. I am also aware that this will improve the general public feeling, justifiably or not. But I am not willing to leave under conditions that are related to unjustified conclusions."
What you are saying is that you will resign, but not because of the committee. Are you unwilling to take the report as a moral imperative to leave?
"There is no such imperative in the report, certainly not about me. With regard to me, the term 'failure' appears very few times compared to all the other statements."
In your estimation, were you a good defense minister?
"History will record that I plowed and sowed and shed tears while someone else will harvest the fruits. But what difference does it make: It's the children in Israel who will eat the fruits."
And the prime minister? The report speaks very harshly of him. In your opinion, can he continue to serve as prime minister?
"The statements demand personal stocktaking. At this moment I am doing my personal stocktaking. I will not assume that of others."
Years of irresponsibility
Did you make a mistake in accepting the defense portfolio?
"I don't know. I am not ready to say."
A year ago, when you took over, were you scared?
"There is that kind of fear. And how! There is the feeling that you are shouldering a heavy burden. You feel that you have to proceed very carefully. Every decision you make determines people's fates."
You are a new minister, inexperienced. A civilian. Did military and intelligence personnel warn you that there was a high probability of a war on the northern border?
"There was no situation assessment of the probability of war when I assumed this post."
Did army personnel come and tell you that the army was not in good shape?
"At no stage; certainly not before the war broke out."
Before the war, did you make decisions that were relevant to what happened and to what was revealed during the war?
"There were two dramatic discussions. On my second day as defense minister I meet with the chief of staff and am shown the impressive capabilities of the IDF and the defense establishment. I ask a simple question: How is it that we are successful in coming up with solutions to the most complex and complicated threats but not to primitive threats such as the Qassam rockets, the Katyushas, the steep-trajectory weapons? I am informed that a project to develop an anti-rocket system was stopped because of its cost. That very day I assert that the morale threat to Israel is strategic, not tactical. I order the establishment of a team to examine the anti-rocket issue."
And the second discussion?
"Two weeks later, the cabinet held a discussion about cutting the defense budget by about half a billion shekels. This was obviously a trap. It was obvious that the next day's headlines would say that Amir Peretz, the social-welfare leader, is not allowing funds to be transferred from defense to the weak population sectors. But I maintain that it is very serious to pit children against tanks and the elderly against planes. I oppose the budget cut vigorously. I tell the ministers that a cut in the middle of the fiscal year will cause cutbacks in reserve duty and in training. I tell them that the discussion is not orderly and that they do not understand the implications of what they are voting on."
What do the prime minister and the finance minister say?
"They display alienation and generate spin the only goal of which is to embarrass me."
Were your words heeded?
"No. They went with the trend of making cuts in the defense establishment, because that is a kickable body. They continued with the conception of the unfeasibility of war, which created a long process of a decline in the level of training. And in fact most of the cut came from training. The erosion there continued. That is why we found ourselves with brigades that had not undergone training for five years and with much missing equipment in very sensitive spheres. It's hard to believe how sensitive. Do you know that most of the medical kits were totally empty? By chance a decision was made to bring the equipment up to par. Otherwise, our forces would have gone into battle with medical kits missing the most basic items."
Did you find a defense establishment, parts of which are hollow?
"Eroded. I have a six-year trauma: everywhere I go I hear 'six years.' Six years we didn't train. Six years they didn't do. I asked, 'Tell me, what happened six years ago?' Did someone think the IDF could be put on ice? That everything was OK? I think that since the withdrawal from Lebanon there was a theory that the threats around us had decreased. And there was also a gamble by leaders that 'it won't happen on my watch.' This raises very significant questions. Because all of them are accusing me. I tell them that before me there were generals in this office, so why wasn't everything ready and prepared in rows and columns? Maybe it's here that a civilian defense minister is more meaningful. Because in comparison to a former general, I am more fearful. And it's precisely a civilian defense minister with his fears who asks more questions. A former army person doesn't notice the erosion because he thinks he will always be able to improvise and come up with some sort of answer."
Who is responsible for the neglect: Ehud Barak? Ariel Sharon? Shaul Mofaz?
"Barak forged the first conception that the threats had diminished dramatically and therefore greater risks could be taken. The person who held the post most of the time afterward was Mofaz, both as chief of staff and as defense minister. Of course he should have been the one to issue warnings and demand that the erosion be stopped."
Was there a lapse in the ministry and in the defense establishment in the six years before you took office?
"There was irresponsibility, of course."
July 12, 2006. Where were you when the soldiers were abducted?
"Here, at this desk. There was a discussion about Gilad Shalit [the soldier abducted in Gaza] with the IDF chief of staff and senior officers. An initial report arrived at 9:15 A.M. We sent the chief of operations and the commander of the Air Force to check it out. The operations chief came back and said a 'levena' had been attacked. I asked what that is. Afterward there were cynical headlines about this: the defense minister doesn't know what a levena is. This is maybe a frivolous example, but it tells the whole story. Because the answer I get is a tank and a small armored vehicle. But afterward it turns out that two Hummers were hit. In other words, the people who live with military terminology don't ask questions, but the civilian asks questions that reveal things. The people in the system have no doubts, no questions. But I ask. Throughout the war, I was not afraid to ask."
You meet the chief of staff again about 1 P.M. What ensues?
"He tells me he has ready responses. He says he can darken Lebanon for a year. That he can cause Lebanon damage in the billions. He suggests attacking Beirut airport, but he also tells me the Air Force can hit the [long-range] Fajr missiles. I ask about this possibility and he explains it to me. I say that it makes more sense to attack the Fajrs than to attack infrastructure."
Did the question of the home front arise?
"I ask about our capability to silence firing at Haifa and Hadera."
Do you get an answer?
"The chief of staff talks about hitting a large portion of the intermediate and long-range missiles."
What about calling up the reserves?
"The chief of staff says he has issued a directive against a call-up."
Are you aware of the possibility of complications?
"I tell the chief of staff that we have to use logic and not fall into Hezbollah's trap. I say we have to think how to hit them with what we have and how we end the operation. It's clear that there is no expectation of returning the soldiers militarily, but I decide that there has to be a preemptive operation against the Fajr missiles that very day."
What did the IDF top brass say at the 3 P.M. meeting that day?
"There was quite an argument. The army wanted to hit the power stations in Lebanon and destroy them. I was against this. I said attacking the power stations would make the whole population of Lebanon rally around Hezbollah."
You rejected the army's proposal?
"I rejected the army's proposal and preferred an attack on the Fajrs. That is what I urged and that is what was authorized. I decided. The attack on the Fajrs was the most successful move of the war."
But that attack also meant war, and you and the others did not understand that.
"We defined a strategic goal. If we had achieved it after a first foray, there would have been no need to continue with the military actions. But when the strategic goal was not achieved, the necessity arose to examine what military operations could be executed."
On July 12, the head of the Mossad espionage agency, Meir Dagan, warns you that the actions proposed by the army will lead to a prolonged confrontation, with a high potential for attacks on the home front, and that after ten days you will find yourself in the same place. Others add similar warnings and say a ground operation will be needed. Did you internalize these assessments?
"Of course. Those voices are heard in the situation appraisal meetings. But the proposals to end the campaign are more acute. Some people suggested attacking Syria. I believed that it would be wrong to expand the confrontation."
Did you internalize the assessment by the Air Force commander that attacking the Fajrs would not solve the problem of the thousands of short-range rockets?
"My thinking was the exact opposite: that what Israel should prove to Hezbollah was that the fact that they were capable of firing rockets into Israel does not paralyze us. If we had not succeeded in shattering that psychological thesis, we would still be prisoners of Hezbollah. That was the strategic problem. Hezbollah knew it had Israel by the throat. They believed that no Israeli leadership would dare launch a confrontation that would result in Katyusha rockets being fired at the home front. We had to break that equation."
The Mossad chief suggested that we wait and first prepare the home front.
"If such comments were made, they were not made with the necessary determination. Maybe someone said that for the record. No one suggested that in the Group of Seven, either [the decision-making ministers in the war]. There was total agreement of all the participating ministers."
Did the chief of staff promise that the air campaign would be decisive and that ground forces would not be needed?
"I don't think it's right to use the term 'promise' here. It was clear to everyone that there was a narrow, limited diplomatic window of ten days to two weeks. It was clear that we had to use those two weeks to change the situation in Lebanon radically."
Was the IDF's integrated air-ground plan presented to you?
"The first part of it."
In other words, the army's message was that an air campaign would be enough?
"The army viewed the air campaign as the central instrument of decision, of that there is no doubt. The chief of staff led this thinking. If it had worked, he would have been praised to the skies. No one was eager to send in ground forces, especially not with the Lebanese trauma hanging over everyone's head. The truth has to be told: the trauma of the withdrawal from Lebanon hung over the heads of the security cabinet ministers and over the heads of some of the army chiefs. I hear now about all kinds of ministers who recommended a ground incursion. If there were such voices, they were very faint. Most of them repeated time and again their opposition to a broad ground operation. However, there were some who demanded that no forces be sent in but that the villages be leveled. To turn villages into soccer fields and sand. I blocked that. I said that I couldn't believe that anyone would dare imagine that we would erase villages from the face of the earth."
That was later. But on July 12 there was talk of the integrated plan, which called for ground forces to enter in three to four days and for the immediate call-up of three divisions of reserve units.
"I will say this cautiously: I pushed for the mobilization of reserves. Every such request was authorized by me. The army personnel did not ask for reservists to execute the integrated plan."
How did you sum up this major strategic discussion in your bureau?
"I suggested that we mount a combined attack on Lebanon and Hezbollah. I made it clear that we would not attack power stations. I said I viewed the long-range rockets as a strategic threat. I said that in every scenario they would fire at Haifa and Hadera. Another reason I preferred the attack on the rockets was to take Hezbollah by surprise, and also because of the possibility of reducing the damage to the home front. I held a first clarification with the Home Front commander about what was needed to protect the home front."
At 6 P.M. there is a meeting with Prime Minister Olmert. Does he acceot your approach?
"In that meeting the chief of staff again recommends attacking power stations and taking out a large part of the electricity supply in Lebanon. I propose an attack on the Fajr rockets. An argument ensues. I say that attacking power stations will end the confrontation with us in an inferior position. The prime minister decides to concentrate on the Hezbollah targets."
Again warnings were voiced about the consequences for the home front. Do you and Olmert take them onboard?
"I certainly do. And I also act. On the very first night I hold a special meeting about the home front. I ask if there is readiness and deployment in case missiles strike Haifa and Hadera. I am told that there is readiness, there are rules of behavior, there are answers for every contingency."
In that case, the system did not report the truth.
"The system reported that the capability existed to cope with a situation of firing on the home front."
Do you feel satisfied about your actions concerning the home front?
"From my perspective as a political leader, I held a discussion on the situation of the home front. I instructed the mapping of areas in which a special situation would be declared. On Friday I held a special, broad meeting with the police, the ambulance service, the firefighters and the local authorities. I received reports that everyone was prepared to meet the needs of the population."
The chief of staff told Shimon Peres, almost with contempt, that he thought three or four moves ahead. Didn't you identify in Dan Halutz an arrogance that wasn't backed up by deep, careful thought?
"I don't think there is room now to discuss the [former] chief of staff and the psychology he comes from. One of the distressing problems of this war is that it fits dramatically the notion that victory has many fathers but failure is an orphan. This war is an orphan. But in the first two weeks it was different. In the first two weeks, everyone tried to prove by DNA labs that he was the real father - It's amazing. A military analyst or a former general who said in the first two weeks that everything was excellent now says in the same [television] studio that from the start everything was wrong. It's beyond belief."
What about the cabinet meeting in which it was decided to attack after a hasty, superficial discussion, without alternatives being presented or implications being understood?
"There was a sense of emergency, of a succession of abductions that were about to change the approach across the entire region. That was the general feeling. Other than the Arabs, even the left-wingers in the most left-wing parties thought going to war was justified. Even if the meeting had gone on for another two hours and more ministers would have said what others had already said, it wouldn't have changed the decision, which reflected the universal feeling."
You yourself said Israel had to act without inhibitions or restrictions. Didn't you also let your hormones decide and not your good sense?
"No. I went into war with fear and trembling. I am not a gung-ho person, I do not believe in the aura of war. I believe in the aura of fighters, not of wars. But from my experience in Gaza I learned that if you don't respond to an event within 48 hours, you can no longer respond. You lose the legitimization. So it was clear to me that if we didn't decide on an immediate response, there would be no response. And there would be no change in the equation of threats between Israel and Hezbollah."
When did you realize that something had gone wrong, that the air campaign had run its course?
"About a week after the start of the campaign. I told army officers in a meeting that we are like a magnificent soccer team that is playing an unknown team and leading 3-0 at halftime, but if we start treading water in the second half and at the end of the game Cinderella scores a goal, the feeling will be that the unknowns won, even though the score is 3-1. I felt we were treading water. I understood that we had to decide either to stop and announce a unilateral ceasefire, or go to a broad ground operation."
The army flinched at this - they didn't want that?
Let me get this straight: a week after the start of the campaign, you realize that the air campaign has exhausted itself and favor a large-scale ground operation?
"I reached the conclusion about a ground operation a lot sooner than most of the ministers. I thought we needed that, not to define a ground goal or to capture the Litani [River] or anything like that. I defined a ground operation with the goal of locating the sources of the Katyusha rockets as the target we had to seize control of."
When did you speak to the prime minister about this?
"I think about a week after the start of the campaign."
And what did he say?
"He was against it."
So in the Olmert-Peretz-Halutz trio, you are the first to see the necessity of a ground operation?
And what did you do?
"On one occasion I urged that the subject come up in the security cabinet, and it was rejected."
Who supported you?
"Fuad [Benjamin Ben-Eliezer] and Rafi Eitan."
So for a week or two the defense minister supports a big ground operation, but is blocked by the prime minister and the chief of staff?
"The goal, as I saw it, was to get the residents of the North out of the bomb shelters. But the prime minister objected, and so did the security cabinet. The army was also against it. There were disagreements in the army, but the IDF position, as presented by the chief of staff, was to go all the way with the air campaign. He said there was no need to mobilize the reserves. It was only two weeks later that I persuaded everyone to call up the three divisions."
Are you satisfied with the final move of the war?
As the United Nations deliberations were ending, you and others are at the prime minister's residence and decide to launch a totally unnecessary military move. Wasn't it done for political reasons?
"Every sensible person understands that this is a decision with no glory. It is not a decision that brings victory fanfares. There was something else here. On Thursday we were told that the international community had backtracked completely from the agreements we had reached that whole month. The diplomatic situation started to spiral. We started from scratch. And there were forces in the field. Soldiers were lying in wait in Lebanon. Division commanders were already completely on edge because soldiers had been lying in wait for entire days."
Wasn't it right to stop late at night, when it was clear that the UN deliberations were done?
"No, because no one knew what Hezbollah's reaction would be. The Lebanese government also had to convene. In every war, the time between the cease-fire decision and when the decision takes effect is a time to improve positions. Always."
Don't you have pangs of conscience about that black Shabbat?
"I am perfectly satisfied with the decision."
And with the entire war?
"There was a dramatic achievement: to restore Lebanese sovereignty. To bring the Lebanese army back to the south after 30 years. It's true that in my assessment, if the fighting had gone on for another few days it's very possible that Hezbollah as an organization would have collapsed completely. But that is judgment in hindsight. There was no intelligence that Hezbollah was on the brink of collapse, and the army did not ask for another few days to make them collapse."
In the present circumstances, do you stand a chance in Labor's internal elections?
"What are you talking about? My chances are very good. We are told not to boast, but I definitely think I am going to win."
And after all that happened in the past year, do you still see yourself as a candidate for prime minister?
"Unequivocally. I don't think there is any reason to forgo that statement. It is a dramatic statement. Historic."
The drama is that a Moroccan from Sderot, a labor leader, is running for prime minister and in the end will be prime minister?
"The very fact that it is happening. That's the wisdom, to give the feeling that everything is possible. And that is only part of the struggle against the various ethnic demons. It is part of a social process that is hastening the breaking down of the barriers of what is permitted and what is forbidden to certain population groups and certain classes."
So you believe that those who didn't want you as defense minister will get you as prime minister?
"I believe that I symbolize the person who came via the simplest way with great faith and achieved what he did by very hard struggles. And I believe that in the end I will be judged by my personal norms and my way of life and how much I am ready to sacrifice for this country and how faithful I am to my way. I believe we are approaching a critical point where there will be a reversal, where a yearning will arise for leaders of a different kind. Of my kind." W