Not Peretz Alone

Transferring control over security (and peace) policy, once and for all, from the military to the government is vital.

There is a ray of light in the darkness! Ehud Barak has decided to run for the Labor Party leadership. Effectively, according to Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, this will be a race for the post of defense minister. What a relief. After too many months in which the prime minister entrusted the state's security to a jobnik (noncombat soldier) and novice defense minister, the Defense Ministry's Tel Aviv offices will be inhabited by an outstanding military commander well-versed in combat. Under him, no officer will dream of entering Ramallah as the prime minister is leaving for a meeting with an Arab leader. The army will not be able to snow someone who knows all the tricks the military can play on the government from the inside.

As long as Barak is in the Defense Ministry, the chief of staff will not be able to drag the country into an unnecessary war. Under his leadership, no regional commander will allow himself to rebel against a government decision to "alleviate" Palestinian life in the territories. It will finally be possible to sleep easy.

Really? Not at all. It is true that Ehud Olmert bears responsibility for the chaos that reigned in the formulation of the goals of the recent war in Lebanon. It's also true that Amir Peretz no longer has any relationship with either the prime minister or the heads of the defense establishment. The Defense Ministry will not feel the minister's absence if he makes the brave decision to transfer to the Social Welfare Ministry. Nevertheless, the not-so-distant past shows that salvation will not arise from Peretz's replacement by a general or admiral. In his book "A Front without a Rearguard" (in Hebrew), Professor Shlomo Ben-Ami, who served as foreign minister and public security minister under Barak, discusses the warped relationship that existed between the government and the Israel Defense Forces' top brass.

"Barak maneuvered well, preserving the direction of dialogue, and pressed for a resumption of negotiations," Ben-Ami wrote. "But on one point, the prime minister failed, and we all failed with him - his lack of control over the gap that developed between the orders given to the army and their implementation on the ground. The dynamic of IDF responses was sometimes 10 times greater than what had been approved, or than the spirit of the government's approval ... The IDF command had a different agenda, and the spirit emanating from its commanders radiated unrestrained anger that ultimately led to an expansion of the vicious cycle of violence instead of its reduction." Goverment minister Amnon Lipkin-Shahak also proved unable to rein in his successor in the IDF chief of staff's office, Shaul Mofaz, or to bring about a cease-fire with the Palestinian leadership.

Olmert and Peretz fell victim to the same chronic illness that afflicted then-prime and defense minister Barak, as well as most of his predecessors and successors. Military experience also failed to immunize Israeli hero Ariel Sharon or his defense minister, retired brigadier general Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, against the syndrome of the military tail wagging the political dog. After the Sharon government decided to order an IDF withdrawal from Palestinian Authority territory in Hebron, Mofaz informed the media that "as long as the Palestinian Authority does not thwart terrorism," he - the man who wore the uniform of Israel's number one soldier - was "opposed to implementing easements that would create a security risk and make it difficult to provide security to Israeli civilians and IDF soldiers." Sharon got angry, Ben-Eliezer issued a rebuke, and Mofaz laughed.

We are all paying the price of this loss of control over a General Staff that decided to liquidate the Palestinian Authority. It's a mission that ended with great success: Yasser Arafat disappeared and Khaled Meshal arrived. Chief of staffs come and go, but the march of folly continues.

Mofaz didn't invent this system. He merely continued in the tradition of his predecessors, who included Barak himself and his generals. Even prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, despite his glorious military past, could not "sear the consciousness" of the military with the understanding that the territories had ceased to be settler country. Releasing Peretz from his (lack of) control over the military and appointing him to a "civilian" post are certainly vital steps. But transferring control over security (and peace) policy, once and for all, from the military to the government is many times more vital.