Peretz Is Just the Engine Driver

It is an enormous responsibility and many in the cars behind him aspire to it, but the engineer has limited authority.

On Friday afternoons, the naval base at Ashdod is as empty as the nearby commercial port was during the great strikes led in his day by Yehoshua Peretz. Arriving at the base in a chauffeur-driven car was a citizen, who lives nearby, and five officers: Amir Peretz and Chief of Staff Dan Halutz, Military Intelligence Commander Amos Yadlin, Operations Branch chief Gadi Eizenkot, and two brigadiers from the Defense Minister's Bureau, staff chief Ami Shafran and military secretary Eitan Dangutt.

First the doors closed behind Peretz and Halutz, two highly skilled political operatives who know how to use personal warmth to melt glaciers in the service of their goals. Then Peretz's two aides and major generals Eizenkot and Yadlin joined them. That's how the joint Peretz-Halutz ship was launched, with the chief of staff as captain and the minister as the CEO of the shipping company.

One of the immediate results of the meeting was an air force strike on one of the training grounds of the Popular Resistance Committees in Gaza, to preempt the training of terrorists and rocket makers in the midst of an innocent population, aswell as air force attacks against Qassam cells during launches. The fundamental policy of the attack was approved by the outgoing government, which may leave one to wonder where the transition from Shaul Mofaz to the new minister was expressed, from a former chief of staff to a Histadrut boss with "a civilian and social orientation."

Such thinking ignores the reality facing the decision-makers, whoever they are. Those who want to reach power represent a thesis. The ruler represents a synthesis, the fusing of the dream and vision. The Israeli defense minister, who in his field is nearly a prime minister - as Ehud Olmert will discover when he regrets he didn't have the political strength to keep the defense portfolio - is not free to pave new directions for himself.

He is just an engine driver on a track that has already been laid and that will either be abandoned or rerouted with an enormous, continued effort. He influences the pace of the journey and its comfort and his alertness will determine whether a car stuck on the tracks is noticed in time and a crash avoided. It is an enormous responsibility and many in the cars behind him aspire to it, but the authority of the engineer is limited.

That's what those who arrive to power from the left (Bill Clinton in Washington and Joschke Fischer in Berlin) or the right (Ariel Sharon) discover; those who come from the side have to travel in the center and it's the same whether their background is defense or trade unions and whether their personality is centrist or permissive. Military people may have brutal images, but as Histadrut boss, Peretz was more tyrannical than any chief of staff, general of a command or IDF commander.

Does that mean Peretz is destined to do exactly what Mofaz would have done had he continued? Not necessarily. Even in Peretz's circumstances, there is room for private and civilian input. For example: stepping up the understandings with Europe and broadening the American aid to the Israeli economy. The Israeli government and defense establishment has so far given low priority to ties with the NATO alliance.

Yesterday, in Brussels, there was a meeting of the military commanders of the alliance, to which the Israeli chief of staff was also invited. Halutz, who participated in a similar event last year, preferred to stay with Peretz and to send his deputy, Moshe Kaplinski, instead. The Israeli ambassador to the international institutions in Brussels, Oded Eran, organized a meeting for Kaplinski in the European Union, but Eran found it difficult to persuade his bosses to create some substance out of the deepening verbal relationship with NATO.

If Washington wants to help Peretz out and soften the blow of the cuts in the defense budget, the administration and Congress can increase limits on turning dollars into shekels in the defense aid (in effect, vouchers for the purchase of weapons and equipment), and thus provide employment to the defense industries.

One of Peretz's free advisers, who actually won't be subordinate to him but will work closely with him, will be Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin. From him and his predecessor, Avi Dichter, now one of Peretz's government colleagues, the defense minister can learn how to win budgetary stability from the treasury. The Shin Bet, alone among all the government agencies, operates on a four-year budget. Yesterday, in a meeting with the chief of staff, Peretz also spoke about a multi-year budget, threats from Tehran, terror and the "backing" he intends to provide the army. The generals were impressed by the articulateness. The maiden sailing of the "Ashdod understandings" between Peretz and Halutz passed peacefully. But they will yet have to maneuver the glaciers.