Amir Peretz Turns His Lens Inward

The Hour

By Leonard Fein

Published March 09, 2007, issue of March 09, 2007.
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The question: What did he see?

By now, you may well have watched or heard about Amir Peretz’s blooper the other day. It made the front page of Israel’s two mass circulation dailies and has been featured on Jay Leno, on NPR’s “Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me!” quiz show, and approximately everywhere else as well.

Peretz, Israel’s defense minister, was on the Golan Heights, together with the Israeli military’s chief of staff, Gabi Ashkenazi, watching large-scale military maneuvers. Both men were, ostensibly, looking through imposing binoculars — but the news photographs clearly show Peretz looking into binoculars with their lens caps firmly in place, the lenses therefore entirely blocked.

Well, not so big a deal. After all, the same thing happened to Ariel Sharon, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush. In fact, the same has happened to many of us, with binoculars or a camera, a failure to remember to remove the lens cap before raising the instrument to the eye. A momentary lapse, easily repaired.

But in the Peretz case, Ashkenazi can be clearly seen explaining what they are watching and Peretz nodding and raising the blinded binoculars not once, nor even twice, but three times. Three times can no longer be explained by simple and temporary inadvertence. And so it is that Amir Peretz, already quite widely disrespected, was instantly transformed into an object of derision.

Leaping to his defense was Haaretz columnist Gideon Levi, who put forward two arguments on Peretz’s behalf: Other government leaders, including Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, are no less deserving of ridicule, an argument that cannot have done much to raise Peretz’s morale, and, more simply, racism, an argument based on the fact that Peretz is Moroccan, and long-standing bigotry in Israeli society has invited, even encouraged, ridicule of Moroccan Jews.

Levi may be right, but he, as well as other commentators, have not asked the right question. Peretz may not know which side is up, but if what he in fact saw when he looked through the now-famous binoculars was, well, nothing, he’d have quickly realized something was wrong, even if he could not immediately figure out just what that something was.

Accordingly, we are bound to conclude that when he raised the binoculars to his eyes, lens caps and all, he did in fact see something. Plainly, someone had tampered with the lenses, affixing on the inner side of the caps an image of some sort. So the question becomes: What did he see and how did he come to see it?

Logic leads first to the Israeli military. In the chain of custody, who had control of the binoculars just before they were handed to Peretz? The answer is the chief of staff and his people. What might their motive have been if they were the ones who provided an alternative reality to Peretz?

Simple: The last thing in the world the military brass wishes is for Peretz to develop anything that feels like military expertise, or even an elementary sense of his own competence to shape, as is his right as defense minister, the army’s strategies, tactics, habits and inclinations. So, if the maneuvers under view are in fact, say, a kilometer away from where you’re viewing them, paint on the lenses the more bucolic view of an area three kilometers away and have the chief of staff explain that what Peretz is seeing is how pacific things can be in the wake of army maneuvers.

Or: It’s the quartermaster corps that has physical possession of the binoculars until they’re handed to Peretz. Imagine that the quartermaster corps, like its counterparts in every army, want a larger share of the military budget for newer equipment. Paint on the Peretz lenses scenes of broken-down Israeli tanks and artillery pieces, let him think that’s what’s going on beyond what the naked eye can see, and hope he will draw the right conclusion.

Israelis being as enterprising and technologically sophisticated as they are, the fakery may not have emanated from the General Staff at all. A clandestine right-wing group may have inserted a miniaturized film clip into the binoculars and had Peretz behold a rally of Golan Heights Syrians at a pro-Iran demonstration; an equally secretive left-wing group might have had him witness abusive behavior by Israeli soldiers at Golan Heights checkpoints.

All these are more convincing explanations of what must have transpired than the suggestion that Peretz was led to believe that the act of raising binoculars to eyes brings on the night.

My problem in choosing among these plausible explanations is that I have met Amir Peretz, and I believe there’s another and still more convincing explanation.

Peretz, along with others, botched the war in Lebanon. His repeated action-less announcements that Israel’s withdrawal from West Bank settlements is imminent have zero credibility. His job approval rating hovers at 10% — even Olmert has 14% approval — and 85% of the voters want him to resign. If he manages somehow to beat back the challenge to his leadership of the Labor Party by Ami Ayalon and Ehud Barak, the party itself will dissolve. All that is visible without the aid of binoculars.

Accordingly, Peretz’s own staff aides have delicately affixed mirrors on the inside of the lens caps, so that when Peretz looks through the binoculars he sees… himself. Politicians generally prefer mirrors to windows; they may have master’s degrees in the seduction of others, but they have Ph.D.’s in the seduction of self. The available evidence suggests that Peretz did his best work as a Ph.D. candidate.

Hence doctored binoculars, mirrored binoculars; they reassure the politician, enabling him to get in touch with his inner lenses. That’s what his nodding is about.

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