How symbolic that Amir Peretz’s first act as Israeli defense minister was to approve an air strike that killed five Palestinian terrorists in Gaza. The dovish former labor union leader, turned instant hawk.
His second act, though, was to begin lifting the most recent closure strangling the West Bank. More than any other job in Israel, the defense ministry will, for better or for worse, reveal the real Amir Peretz.
His suitability for the defense job has been the subject of considerable debate in Israel, where a security background is considered an important feature of any aspiring politician’s biography and a vital attribute for anyone seeking to hold an office that involves national security decision-making. Even Ehud Olmert, who served as a journalist in the Israeli military, is something of an anomaly as prime minister. It was precisely because Olmert is not a former general that many thought he should appoint someone who is.
Peretz was a junior munitions officer and spent more than a year of his brief military service in a hospital recovering from an accident. If he succeeds as defense minister it will considerably strengthen his claim to become prime minister in a future election. Hence some of his supporters urged him to take the defense ministry even if Olmert offered him his first choice, the Finance Ministry, which Olmert refused to do anyway.
A number of Peretz’s predecessors as defense minister succeeded in the post despite their lack of extensive security experience. First and foremost was David Ben-Gurion, who led the country during the 1948 and 1956 wars and is considered the father of both Israel’s military and its strategic doctrine.
Moshe Arens, who held the post three times, was a successful innovator who reformed the military, created the Field Corps headquarters and pushed Israel’s spy satellite and anti-missile missile programs — now mainstays of Jerusalem’s defenses against Iran — despite the resistance of the senior military brass. Levi Eshkol deserves credit for readying the Israeli armed forces for the 1967 Six-Day War. And Menachem Begin and Shimon Peres both served as defense minister despite having never served at all in the military.
This suggests that Peretz, too, might have a fair chance of succeeding at the job. Indeed, some would argue that a non-security figure can succeed as defense minister precisely because he lacks a security background, and hence does not automatically see the application of force as the solution to all of Israel’s security challenges.
On the other hand, all previous “civilian” defense ministers came to the job with extensive non-military security experience. Arens, for example, was a senior figure in Israel Aircraft Industries before entering politics. Eshkol began building up the Israeli military while finance minister. Peres built the Dimona nuclear reactor, founded Israel Aircraft Industries and served as director general and deputy minister in the Defense Ministry before taking over the ministerial portfolio. Even Begin led a militant underground movement prior to 1948.
Because Peretz lacks similar experience, a lot now depends on his skills as an administrator and leader and his ability to learn on the job. The Defense Ministry probably has the most skilled senior personnel of any Israeli ministry, beginning with the military’s chief of staff and the defense industry chiefs. If Peretz can get along with them while maintaining his authority, he will have a chance to succeed. But he will also need to display sound judgment and decision-making ability — qualities that have not always characterized his brief tenure as leader of the Labor Party.
Peretz will also bring his own agenda to the ministry. It is generally agreed that, in order to free up the budgetary funding needed to restore and enhance transfer payments to the lower socioeconomic echelons and raise the minimum wage — in other words, in order for Peretz to fulfill his election promises — the defense budget will have to be cut significantly. But usually when the Finance Ministry wants to reduce the defense budget, it is the defense minister who represents military and other security interests and opposes the cuts.
On rare occasions in the past — Ben-Gurion and Yitzhak Rabin are the best examples — the defense minister, who in both cases served also as prime minister, was able to exercise his considerable prestige and leadership qualities and push through budgetary cuts for the benefit of non-defense related issues. Such was the case in the early 1950s, when focus was on immigrant absorption and improvements in education, and again during the early 1990s, when greater effort was invested in the Israeli Arab sector. Assuming Peretz convinces Olmert to endorse his budgetary priorities and argues that the challenges posed by Iran and Islamist terrorism can be dealt with despite a reduced budget, could he exercise that kind of leadership in his first year or two in office?
As defense minister, the dovish Peretz has direct and powerful input into Israeli policy regarding the Palestinians. He will presumably want to take a new look at some of the security concepts that guided Israel during the second intifada.
Peretz can be expected to try to use the critical mass of his ministry and its responsibilities to lobby Olmert and the Cabinet to make a serious attempt at negotiating with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas prior to undertaking Olmert’s “convergence” plan for further unilateral disengagement. But here he will have to address the assessment of Israeli military intelligence — now under his stewardship — that Abbas does not have sufficient authority to be a viable partner.
Similarly, Peretz is certain to press for adjustments in the security fence that bring it closer to the pre-1967 border with the West Bank, but will be obliged to coordinate with the settlement map dictated by Olmert’s disengagement plans, as well as military considerations regarding the security of sensitive installations like Ben-Gurion airport and transportation arteries to Jerusalem.
Peretz is likely to argue for immediate implementation of long-delayed plans, approved in his day by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, to remove illegal outposts. Indeed, he will insist his ministry cease fudging the criteria for “illegality” in order to sanitize some of the larger and more controversial outposts. Here, as on the issues relating to Abbas and the security fence, he may enjoy the support of the Bush administration but encounter reservations from Olmert, who will probably insist that military planning regarding settlement removal focus on the broader thrust of convergence rather than the larger outposts.
As ways of eliminating friction with the Palestinian population and generating moderation, Peretz may also want to look into the possibility of further reducing closures, removing roadblocks and moving toward implementation of some form of safe passage between Gaza and the West Bank. The military chiefs will almost certainly reply that, given both Hamas rule and the high level of alert regarding suicide bombers, they are not prepared to take such risks, at least until the fence is completed and all settlements beyond it removed.
As Peretz takes office in military headquarters in Tel Aviv, he confronts an opinion poll by the mass daily Yediot Aharonot indicating that fully 76% of the Israeli public believes he is not suitable for the Defense Ministry job. To reverse this trend and be recognized as a successful defense minister by a large portion of the public, he will have to tread a fine line between his own political and ideological inclinations, the recommendations of the defense professionals under his ministry, and the political direction adopted by the government in which he serves.
Politically, this job will make or break him.
Yossi Alpher, a former senior adviser to Prime Minister Ehud Barak and former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, is co-editor of the bitterlemons family of online publications.