A War Without a Defense Minister

Should we conclude that a civilian should not be appointed defense minister? The answer is a resounding no. There have already been examples of it, and there is no need to go back to David Ben-Gurion.

The thousands of rockets that hit the Israeli home front during the Second Lebanon War and the public sense of failure in the war join the characterization of the war as exceptional in being the first that was in effect conducted without a defense minister.

Officially, the defense minister was the head of an important party, but Amir Peretz did not really do his job. That is the feeling among the public and in the defense establishment. Had the war ended with sweepingly positive results, they might have continued with business as usual. But the results were otherwise, and many wonder how it happened that Peretz was appointed defense minister at all. Even Peretz himself understands the situation and has decided to demand the Finance Ministry in a future coalition agreement.

The war surprised Peretz as well. Had he known it would break out so soon after he began his term, he might have waived the appointment. When it broke out he found himself in a difficult and intolerable situation. Even earlier he deliberated a great deal regarding his assistants. His suspicions were sky high; he made sure to compartmentalize his actions and thoughts. In discussions it turned out that his knowledge of defense was meager. The difficult situation in his party preoccupied him a great deal, and it is doubtful he had time for a thorough reading of important security documents. During the first months many issues were repeatedly postponed.

Peretz's relations with former chief of staff Dan Halutz were not good, and after the war the suspicion grew. During the war, Peretz had problems with the prime minister as well. Ehud Olmert shunted him aside on sensitive diplomatic issues, and tension was created between the two bureaus. To find out what was going on in the diplomatic sphere, Peretz's bureau sometimes had to receive information from the Americans. The Prime Minister's Bureau provided the important information sparingly.

Peretz could have found good advisers. During the war there were several experienced people who wanted to lend a hand with assistance and advice, including former chief of staff Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, Major General (res.) David Ivry - who was the commander of the Air Force, the director-general of the Defense Ministry and an ambassador to Washington - and the former head of Military Intelligence in the Israel Defense Forces, Amos Malka. Meetings were held, but nothing official and systematic came of them.

This situation could not remain a secret. Even the U.S. administration sensed it. Although Peretz held good diplomatic meetings with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, his meetings with senior administration officials, and particularly in the Defense Department during his visit to Washington, were inadequate. The prime minister informed the Americans that two other ministers, Shaul Mofaz and Avigdor Lieberman, were dealing with strategic issues. Washington saw that in spite of his diplomatic views Peretz was unable to keep promises and to evacuate illegal outposts.

After the war, Peretz chose the tactic of confrontation with his predecessors in the defense establishment. He leveled accusations at ministers and senior officers who had been in charge of defense issues in the North, including former defense minister Shaul Mofaz and former chief of staff Moshe (Bogey) Ya'alon. But this will not save him. It is doubtful the Winograd Committee can ignore what happened in the war, and instead focus on the past, which is subject to various interpretations. It is clear a change is about to take place in the defense minister's bureau.

Should we conclude from all this that a civilian should not be appointed defense minister? The answer is a resounding no. There have already been examples of it, and there is no need to go back to David Ben-Gurion. Moshe Arens and Shimon Peres, who were defense ministers, are a good example. Levy Eshkol did quite a good job in handling defense issues, and when there was a danger of a major war, on the eve of the Six-Day War, he vacated his seat in favor of Moshe Dayan, even though it was hard for him to do so.