Defense Is Not His Forte

Aryeh Dayan
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Aryeh Dayan

These days - after the war in Lebanon has made Defense Minister Amir Peretz a convenient target for anyone who wants to express anger or frustration over what happened during the war - it's hard to believe that Peretz's victory over Shimon Peres for the leadership of the Labor Party transformed him, almost overnight, into the great hope of so very many Israelis.

Today, when the demand for Peretz's resignation as defense minister is being heard in every protest tent, it's a bit strange to recall that just five months ago, on the eve of the Knesset elections, there were writers and artists, academics and journalists, business people and labor leaders who saw Peretz as the leader who would change the agenda of Israeli society and enthusiastically agreed to help him reach a position of power from which so many now want to depose him.

Prof. Ariel Rubinstein of the economics department at Tel Aviv University, winner of the 2002 Israel Prize for Economics, was one of those people. As someone who, nearly 30 years ago, was among the founders of Peace Now, and is one of the few local economists who present a social-democratic alternative to the capitalist theories that have turned Israel into one of the least egalitarian societies in the Western world, he believed that Peretz was capable of bringing about some of the changes the country needs. Today he says he was wrong.

"No less than I am disappointed with Amir Peretz, I am disappointed with myself," said Rubinstein this week. "Indeed I was wrong when I decided to support Peretz. Something in my judgment was flawed."

The economist actually says that he erred twice: first on the eve of the elections when he gave his support to Peretz, and the second time when he believed that his appointment as defense minister was a fitting one.

Peretz's rise to the top fired him with enthusiasm, says Rubinstein, "not only because his name isn't Berkowitz and not only because he didn't come from the elites that have always led the Labor Party, but rather because I thought that at long last he could connect us with the populations with whom we always wanted to connect."

Now the professor is prepared to admit that even then, before the elections, he had noticed Peretz's worrying tendency "to talk a bit too much in slogans and to say things that are a bit too inflammatory," but he decided to ignore these signs. With great frankness, today Rubinstein is also prepared to say that he had applied "reverse discrimination" to Peretz, "because of his origins" and because "I refrained from judging him as strictly as I would have judged someone else, who comes from the traditional background from which all the Labor Party leaders have come."

Rubinstein was disappointed both by the defense minister's moves during the course of the war and by what he perceives as Peretz's inability to understand that he is not suited to the position of defense minister. It is important for the economist to make it clear that "I really don't know whether or not he had a strategy. But even if he did have a strategy, he didn't know how to explain it."

Peretz also disappointed him because he did not try to delay the military response to the abduction of the soldiers, in order first to clarify with the General Staff what the war plans were. "It is the duty of the defense minister in a democratic regime to check the army's plans, to consider them, to brainstorm and only then to decide whether to send or not to send in the troops," complained Rubinstein. "After all, there wasn't an emergency situation on that day. It wasn't the Yom Kippur War and there weren't any Iranian missiles over Syria on their way to Israel."

He was also disappointed because, in his decisions and actions, Peretz did not, in Rubinstein's opinion, evince "the values of peace and humanism" of which he often spoke proudly in the past. "Even when you're fighting, it is necessary to act intelligently and with moderation, to avoid hollow slogans and inflammation of the masses in the style of [Menachem] Begin or [Benjamin] Netanyahu. To my regret, Amir did exactly these things."

Peretz disappointed Rubinstein seriously for the first time even before the war in Lebanon broke out, when he approved the bombardment of the power station in the Gaza Strip. Then came the bombing of the fuel tanks in Beirut which, like the move in Gaza was, in his opinion, "a cruel action that caused unnecessary suffering to very many people, whose logic I can't understand."

Nevertheless, were elections to be held today, and were Peretz to run again for head of the Labor Party, Rubinstein said he would vote for it again. "Amir Peretz isn't suited for the position of defense minister, but without a doubt he is a positive individual who should remain in a key position. He mustn't be scattered to the four winds."

In the same breath, he adds that he would suggest to Peretz that he "carry out a dramatic move, which in the eyes of the various Adlers [a reference to Reuven Adler, a political strategist and media advisor] will block his way to the premiership but to my mind will in fact enhance his greatness."

What would such a move be? Rubinstein believes that Peretz should hand the position of defense minister over to "an individual like (Labor MK) Ami Ayalon," and demand in exchange the portfolio of finance minister or a position as overall minister for social affairs.

A still-positive opinion

Dramatist and writer Yehoshua Sobol disagrees with nearly all of Rubinstein's assessments. He too supported Peretz's candidacy for prime minister, but he also published, about two weeks before the elections, a book that gave an intellectual seal of approval to his candidacy. Sobol's book, "Here and Now - Amir Peretz and the Israeli Situation," which describes Peretz's path to the top, presents an indictment of those who rejected his candidacy on the basis of ethnic background, and describes Peretz as an inspiring leader with a proper political philosophy and a solid social-democratic worldview that rests on a firm moral basis.

From a conversation with Sobol this week, it emerges that Peretz's conduct during the war has not caused the playwright to change his positive opinion of the defense minister. Sobol believes that Peretz successfully conducted a war that achieved most of its aims and argues that the defense minister took care during the fighting not to deviate from his moral principles or cause unnecessary suffering to the civilian population in Lebanon. He also believes that the criticism of the minister derives in part from political interests and in part from "ethnic prejudices."

Sobol says that the negative consensus that is developing in the country against the defense minister deserves to be viewed with suspicion because it, like every other consensus, "is built by very powerful elements," who for several weeks now have been working on constructing it. In fact, Sobol sees Hassan Nasrallah's statements on Lebanese television this week as threatening, in his opinion, to topple this consensus together with "the narrative of the failure of the war" that is behind it. He interprets the Hezbollah leader's comments as a justification for Israel's decision to go to war, and says they also "pointed an accusing finger at [former prime ministers] Ehud Barak and Ariel Sharon, who in contrast to [Prime Minister] Ehud Olmert and Amir Peretz, refrained from responding forcefully to Hezbollah's provocations and enabled the construction of the Hezbollahstan state in southern Lebanon."

The war, in Sobol's opinion, destroyed "the state of Hezbollahstan, which served as a commando position for Iran," eliminated the Hezbollah command centers in other areas of the country and killed a quarter of its fighters, wiped out the organization's long-range missile system right at the start ("and therefore missiles were not fired at Tel Aviv"), brought the Lebanese Army to the south, enabled the possibility of international supervision over what happens in Lebanon, and also led to a resolution in the United Nations that will prevent the renewal of the supply of missiles to Hezbollah in the future.

"These were the aims of the war and they were achieved almost in their entirety," the writer asserts, adding that it is possible that in a few years' time "the new situation that has been created will lead to the separation of Lebanon from Syria and the signing of a peace agreement between Lebanon and Israel."

The sense of failure that has developed in the public, in his opinion, derives from the fact that "the inflated Israeli ego expected a lightning war that would end in a knockout victory." Sobol thinks that Israel could have achieved such a victory, but to do this, it would have required use of the Israel Defense Forces' full strength ("and not just 10 percent of the air force's capability"), and that would have cost total destruction in extensive areas of Lebanon.

"Amir Peretz decided to act cautiously, responsibly and intelligently," he says. "The fact is that the number killed in Lebanon is relatively small. In Lebanon War I, Sharon inundated Lebanon with fire, he destroyed Tyre and Sidon and he caused the deaths of 10,000 Lebanese. Peretz, however, acted in accordance with a conception that says that southern Lebanon, including the Shi'ites who live there, will also be our neighbors in the future."

Sobol believes that Israel is already beginning to harvest the positive fruits of this conception, and says: "More and more Lebanese, among them even the Shi'ite mufti of Lebanon, have already begun to voice criticism of Hezbollah."

The achievements of the war and the defense minister's positive functioning have been kept from the public eye, he adds, mainly at the initiative of Peretz's rivals within the Labor Party.

"People who expected to get the finance portfolio or defense, and whose desires Peretz did not satisfy, were just waiting for him around the corner," Sobol says. "They started to say that he is not suited to being defense minister way before they had the possibility of determining whether he is or not."

Furthermore, Sobol believes that "Peretz is suited to being defense minister exactly like Levi Eshkol, who was the best defense minister in the history of Israel. The ethnic issue played an ugly role against Peretz right from the start, and now it is getting almost complete legitimization."

Nevertheless, despite all this, Sobol, like Ariel Rubinstein, is also recommending to Peretz that he resign from the Defense Ministry and take upon himself a position of senior minister for social affairs.

"Peretz," sums up Sobol, "was elected to head the Labor Party in order to advance a social agenda, and it is impossible to advance a social agenda from the Defense Ministry. In the Labor Party there are quite a number of people who can serve as defense minister, but only Amir Peretz is suited to serving as a 'supreme' social minister."