An Empty Car

Amir Peretz has demonstrated that the position of defense minister is completely superfluous, but now that he has nothing to lose, there's hope he might wake-up and go into action.

An empty car arrived at the Defense Ministry, and Amir Peretz stepped out of the car, to paraphrase Winston Churchill's jibe at Clement Atlee. Even the harshest critics of Peretz have to acknowledge the important contribution he has made: He has demonstrated that the position of defense minister is completely superfluous. It is possible to go to war, withdraw forces, pulverize Gaza, deploy vis-a-vis Iran, and even control the West Bank without a defense minister. It suddenly becomes apparent that an answering machine at the defense minister's office is sufficient. Fact: Peretz has faded away, yet all of these things occurred.

It is possible to be an outstanding citizen, a labor leader who emerged from a remote town, who throughout his life fought and paid the price for his dovish views - without a ranch, without military ranks, without rich friends and cigars - and then become a defense minister responsible for a policy that is even more brutal and militaristic than that of all the generals who preceded him. Fact: The initial months of Peretz's tenure as defense minister have been among the most horrifying in the history of the conflict, with Israel routinely killing a shocking number of Palestinian and Lebanese civilians, including many women and children. Not only has Uncle Peretz failed to soar, but he has become an identical twin of Shaul Mofaz, who was perhaps the most brutal of defense ministers. However, soon we will begin to long for Mofaz: At least with him we had no expectations that he would act wisely and humanely.

On April 2, just after the elections, I wrote here: "Defense Minister Amir Peretz. Are we ready for this juxtaposition of words, which seems semi-imaginary? Is Peretz brave enough to take up the gauntlet? And is Olmert? This will be the first test of these two and of all of us, in fact." And indeed, with a quivering hand, it can be written: This test has apparently ended in abject failure, with implications that are much more grievous than the fate of Peretz and Olmert. Apparently? Because Peretz has one small and absolutely last chance.

He began his term on the wrong foot. His first decision was to approve a worthless liquidation operation in Gaza in which five members of the Popular Resistance Committees were killed. This was the signal that heralded hundreds of killings. At the time, he still felt somewhat obliged to instruct the commanders "not to harm innocent people." As confused as it was, this directive was also drenched in a sea of liquidations that were subsequently carried out by the Israel Defense Forces in Gaza. More than 300 Palestinians have been killed since Gilad Shalit was captured.

It seems that Peretz's position is determined by where he is sitting. Now, he is already responsible for all of the failures, from the war in Lebanon through the futile, bloody operations in Gaza. He is responsible for this bloodshed. Not a shred or trace of his previous worldview, not even the rhetoric. The West Bank is groaning, Gaza is crushed, no one talks about peace or negotiations, we say "no" to the Syrians and boycott Hamas, while the settlements flourish. Gaza is wallowing in darkness due to the criminal and stupid bombing of the electricity plant (Who gave the order?). Dozens of children are crippled and have lost limbs as a result of the types of appalling armament the IDF deploys in Gaza and Lebanon, where people are still being injured every day by the thousands of cluster bombs the IDF left behind. And who is orchestrating all of this? A former Peace Now activist.

Why did he struggle for all those years if this is the way he acts when the golden opportunity comes his way to make a change in direction? Only to reach an "accord" with the settlers on a ridiculous evacuation of several "illegal" outposts? Mofaz would have been enough for this. We did not need Peretz if this was only to try to allow olives to be harvested in the West Bank.

Peretz has crashed. He dissolved between the chief of staff, who ignores his existence, and a prime minister who belittles and scorns him. Even Yitzhak Rabin as prime minister did not show such scorn for then-defense minister Shimon Peres, whom he despised. And the "rebels" in his own party ridicule and hound him.

True, it is not easy to maneuver between all of them. But a true leader should have known how to navigate among Olmert, Dan Halutz and Avishay Braverman. What can Peretz say now to those who set their hopes on him? The intellectuals, those seeking peace and social justice, the workers and Arabs, who believed for a moment that his election was a ray of new hope - that a civilian could manage the defense system, that someone from a development town could be a seeker of peace, and that a Mizrahi does not necessarily hate Arabs. What will he say now? That his hand was not in the till? That all of the subversive types above and below him are to blame? The greater the expectation, the greater the disappointment - and this will remain with us for many long years to come.

However, there is still a small chance. Peretz no longer has anything to lose. Therefore, it is hard to understand what he fears. If he still believes in the courageous views he once held, why doesn't he act to implement them? Why doesn't he take some bold moves to save himself and us from hopelessness?

Peretz wants to advance an accord with the Palestinians? Why doesn't he meet with Ismail Haniyeh, or at least with Mahmoud Abbas? He is in favor of negotiations with Syria? Why doesn't he say so? He realizes how brutal the occupation is? Why doesn't he act to loosen its grip? After all, he is the defense minister, right? He is the No. 2 in the government and despite the treachery of his party colleagues, he still wields considerable political power. It looks like these are his final days on the job. He can still make his swan song resound from above. Arise from your slumber, Peretz, as the Internationale exhorts - if you still remember the words.