Starting Off on the Wrong Foot

The new defense minister will be tested by not hurrying to try to "prove himself" through bombastic and hopeless measures, as he did over the weekend.

Amir Peretz has started his term on the wrong foot: He approved the aerial bombing on Friday night that killed five Palestinians, activists in the Popular Resistance Committees in Gaza. According to reports, one of those killed is the brother of Mumtaz Durmish, a leader of the committees, who was behind the thwarted attack at the Karni crossing. The rest were defined, as usual, as "activists in the committees." Did the five deserve to die? It is hard to know. One can assume the defense minister also does not know. It was reported to the media that Peretz asked before the operation whether "innocents" would be hurt and that the response was "probably not." Peretz did what was expected of him and approved the liquidation. Was this bombing absolutely necessary? Certainly not. It will only generate another Palestinian response in the cycle of blood. Thus, in his first security decision, Peretz already appears to be the disciple of Shaul Mofaz - an extremely bad sign.

The great promise of the new government is the appointment of Amir Peretz as defense minister. It is also liable to become its greatest and most resounding disappointment. It is not only Peretz being tested, but also the exciting approach that a peace-seeking civilian, who did not sprout from the barracks, can successfully manage the defense system. If he succeeds, not only will his road to the premiership be paved, but also the path of other citizens of his background to reach the heights of the elite. If he fails, the door will close for many years on civilian management of the defense system, as is the norm in most countries. Therefore, the importance of the task placed on the shoulders of the captain (in the IDF reserves) and labor activist from Sderot can not be stressed too much.

The problem is that just as the expectations are great, so are the dangers lurking in his path. Unlike other new ministers, such as Education Minister Yuli Tamir who is also a promising appointment, Peretz's first test will be immediate, a surprise quiz the day after the next terror attack. After a grace period of 100 hours, it will already be possible to see whether this unconventional appointment brings hope of something different.

The morning after the next attack, the talk will start about his failure - look, the inexperienced minister failed to prevent the attack. The fact that terrorism actually reared its head under more "experienced" generals will not be remembered. The militarists will prod him "to do something," which always means to exercise disproportionate force, whose principal aim is revenge and retribution and which not only fails to "obliterate the terror" but leads to a new wave of bloodshed.

The new defense minister will be tested by not hurrying to try to "prove himself" through bombastic and hopeless measures, as he did over the weekend. A Peretz who tries to demonstrate that he is "not what you thought" is liable to be a dangerous minister. He is liable to initiate a particularly extreme Israeli response to prove he "is not like that." If, on the other hand, he radiates restraint, wisdom, and especially determination in his initial steps, defense officials will understand there is a change in direction and that the old and bad rules of the game are no longer in effect.

Peretz can convey this message immediately: He can ask his advisers for data on the IDF's shelling of Gaza. According to military sources, Israel has fired about 8,000 shells since the disengagement, killing and sowing fear and destruction in response to the firing of 545 Qassams and mortars, only 174 of which were identified as "definite landings" and which did not kill anyone. This lack of proportionality must stop immediately, and Peretz should give the directive.

The initial days will determine what follows. Ehud Barak did not prevent the destruction of the first Palestinian home several days after he promised a "new dawn" and a peace government. The razing of the al-Hilsa family home near Ma'aleh Adumim was the harbinger of the demolition of hundreds of other homes and the construction of thousands of housing units in the settlements. Peretz must start differently. He has to radiate humanity and morality immediately to the IDF and the Palestinians. This is a very difficult task today. The liquidation in Gaza already raises serious fears that this will not be the path he takes.

Poised to attack the new minister are the generals, the admirals and also the racists, whether camouflaged or overt. They are whispering in back rooms that it was an act of "national irresponsibility" to appoint Peretz to this position because of his background and origins. Peretz will need a huge measure of self-confidence and especially courage to stand up to them. It is in his hands to change the direction, but it will be tough work.

He should remember that not only the generals will be measuring his actions, but also his constituents and voters. He must not accept every "situation assessment" and every "intelligence report" placed on his desk as holy writ. He will discover that his advisers are captives of an erroneous and useless conception and only understand one language, the language of force. His job will be to challenge: Who is the person they are demanding to liquidate? Is he really deserving of death? What will be the implications of liquidating him? Why did you destroy and not arrest, why did you fire shells and why did you obstruct, why did you kill and why did you inflict injuries? Such questions have not been raised in a long time.

The chorus of generals, including those in his own party, will try to put down each of his efforts to change direction. The road is difficult and the chances of success are slim, but do exist. Very soon, we will know whether we have a courageous defense minister. Will the great hope be disappointed? Our eyes are now turned toward Peretz. If only it does not turn out that another narrow-minded and cruel general who does not need to "prove himself" would have been preferable to a civilian from Sderot who seeks peace and social justice.