Zionist Union MK Amir Peretz has no regrets, 10 years after leading Israel into the Second Lebanon War as its minister of defense.
In an interview at his office in the Knesset on the eve of another likely run for leadership of the Labor Party, he explained why what went right in the war was his doing and what went wrong was not.
He said he wanted to be appointed finance minister but then-prime minister Ehud Olmert decided that the Treasury would stay with his Kadima party. When he was given a choice between the Foreign and Defense ministries, he decided the defense minister had the most influence not only on security but also on the economy and the Palestinians.
“There have been 10 years of quiet in the North,” Peretz said.
“Ten-year-olds can go to school without experiencing Katyusha missiles in their yard and farmers work their land without needing to get IDF permission due to feats that Hezbollah could fire at them.”
Peretz said prior to his term as defense minister, there were leaders who predicted that its enemies’ missiles would rust before they were used, and even if they were fired would not cause damage.
IDF reserves had focused too much on guarding the West Bank that they were not training and their abilities had eroded. There was not enough equipment, and what there was did not fit the IDF’s needs. The army also did not have enough operational plans.
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Peretz recalled that the Hezbollah’s kidnapping of reservists Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev occurred on July 12 during deliberations in his office about assassinating the Hamas heads in Gaza following the kidnapping of Cpl. Gilad Schalit.
“We talked about the IDF containment policy and how much we fire in response to when they fire at us,” he said. “Hezbollah saw it as weakness, as if we were paralyzed. There was trauma from the First Lebanon War and because they knew we wouldn’t fire back too much because we were afraid of too much firing on our home front. We needed to break that paradigm and let Hezbollah know we wouldn’t tolerate it anymore, so we knew we had to respond harsher.”
Peretz saw how Hamas and Hezbollah were building on each other’s attacks. In Intelligence briefings, Peretz heard Hezbollah head Hassan Nasrallah say that he and Olmert were weak.
When then-IDF chief of staff Lt.-Gen. Dan Halutz offered massive attacks on infrastructure, such as the power plant in Beirut on the first night of the war, Peretz said no and that the IDF should focus only on Hezbollah.
“If we attacked in Beirut where Hezbollah don’t live, we would have united the population against us,” Peretz said. “I had been learning for two months on the job on the capabilities of Hezbollah. The long range missiles were built in houses in Lebanon. I asked for a plan to attack those missiles in the first attack.”
The IDF disagreed for two reasons: It would reveal Israel’s sources of intelligence and citizens who live in the houses in which the missiles were stored would be killed.
“I told them the intelligence is needed exactly for war, and not the other way around,” Peretz recalled. “I said, ‘I am a man of peace, no less humane than you. But if a man has a missile in his house or ammunition, he is not immune to attack.’ The attack took less than 38 minutes.
It shocked Hezbollah, and we showed them we would not allow them to hide behind their civilians anymore.”
Peretz took credit for the IDF reserves being in much better shape and knowing the regions where they would take action if they get drafted. He recalled that he fought for the Iron Dome missile system against the IDF, Olmert and the press.
“Later on, the generals said publicly that they regretted their opposition and appreciated what Peretz did,” he said.
“Now we can’t imagine the IDF without Iron Dome. It also helped the diplomatic effort because terror groups could decide violence doesn’t pay and that it is better to negotiate. I still hope that will happen.”
He said wars since then have had greater flexibility because the home front was protected.
“Imagine if all those rockets would have hit,” he said. “Our cities would have looked like London after the Blitz.”
Regarding the much criticized ground operation into Lebanon, he said he wanted it to take place 10 days earlier but Olmert wanted to go through the UN Security Council first.
He said the result was that Israel received much better treatment from the international community and the UN resolution that ended the war was better than it might have been had Israel not waited.
Regarding the estimated 120,000 rockets Hezbollah has now, he said: “It doesn’t matter.
What matters is if they will pull the trigger.”
He quoted Nasrallah saying that had he known that there was going to be a one percent chance that the IDF would react the way it did, he wouldn’t have ordered the kidnapping of the soldiers. He said Nasrallah rarely leaves bunker nowadays and said that is part of the success of the war.
Peretz blamed then-opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu and his then-chief of staff Naftali Bennett for orchestrating demonstrations about how the war was run.
“They manufactured protests of reservists,” he said. “The protests were political, and harmed the national spirit. I act different as an opposition MK, and I even put out a positive statement on the Turkey deal. That is how the opposition should behave.”
While Peretz will not forgive Netanyahu, he has gotten over his animosity for former rivals Ehud Barak and Shelly Yacimovich.
“I am putting the past behind me,” he said. “I am proud of all my ideological battles. I would have taken back some of my personal battles. Those I do regret.”
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