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Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh remembers the 1974 incident in the Sinai desert, where a 22-year-old IDF captain named Amir Peretz was caught between two Israeli armored personnel carriers that smashed his legs and severely injured him.
Sneh was the paratrooper brigade's medical officer at the time of the incident that ended Peretz's military career and forced him to begin a lengthy process of rehabilitation in a military hospital.
More than three decades later, Sneh has been brought in as a remedy to help Defense Minister Amir Peretz, who was left without a leg to stand on following perceived failures in the IDF's performance in the second Lebanon War.
At stake for Peretz is the rehabilitation of his political career. At stake for the country is its ability to recover from the war and prepare for the next one.
Until two weeks ago, when Prime Minister Ehud Olmert agreed to appoint Sneh to compensate Peretz for the addition of Israel Beiteinu to the coalition, the government lacked a military authority in any decision-making capacity at the political level.
Decisions were made by "Captain" Peretz and "Sergeant" Olmert, while former generals like Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz were left out of the loop. (While Mofaz and Binyamin Ben-Eliezer are former generals who serve in the security cabinet, this forum of 13 ministers has long ago stopped making secret operational decisions.) The addition to the cabinet of Strategic Affairs Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who only reached the rank of corporal, did not add significant military experience to the inner circle.
That's why Sneh's appointment was so significant. He twice ran the Defense Ministry as deputy defense minister, once under Yitzhak Rabin and then under Ehud Barak, two former IDF chiefs of general staff, who served simultaneously as prime minister and defense minister.
Before that, the brigadier-general headed the civil administration in the West Bank, commanded the South Lebanon security zone and led the medical teams in the 1976 Entebbe rescue operation.
This experience should come in handy with threats looming from what Sneh describes as the "quartet of evil": Iran, Syria, Hizbullah and Hamas. He already made his presence felt this week in deliberations following the apparently errant IDF shelling on Beit Hanun [which resulted in the deaths of 19 civilians].
Sneh will likely do the same with big decisions ahead regarding how Israel reacts to Iran's attempt to become a nuclear power. In an interview at his office in the Knesset, he said that Israel must act under the assumption that significant international sanctions against Iran would not work, and prepare to prevent the nuclearization of Iran "at all costs."
"Israel needs to substantially improve its indigenous long-range capacities," Sneh said. "I am not advocating an Israeli preemptive military action against Iran; I am aware of all its possible repercussions. I consider it a last resort. But even the last resort is sometimes the only resort."
How do you explain what happened in Beit Hanun on Wednesday?
The disadvantage of artillery of that sort is its lack of accuracy. I don't have the inquiry results, but it happens that a shell deviates from its course. We prefer to use precise ammunition when possible. But sometimes when you have to cover a broad area to prevent rocket fire, you use artillery and this can happen. It's most probably our mistake, and I am sincerely sad about it.
We have already heard the media in Gaza calling this incident the "Palestinian Kana massacre." Do you think Israel will be able to defend itself against this charge?
Such accusations don't make the suffering any easier, and they won't prevent future tragedies. There is a difference between military and moral responsibility. From the military point of view, we are responsible, and with all the sorrow, we have to admit it. But the moral responsibility is entirely on Hamas and Islamic Jihad, because we left the Gaza Strip completely, not leaving behind a single soldier. They turned Gaza, especially Beit Hanun, into a launching pad for rockets on our civilians, kibbutzim and Ashkelon, while cynically using their civilian population as a human shield for their terrorist activity. They cannot evade responsibility for this.
It appears that the world is already assigning responsibility to Israel (pointing to CNN on the television next to him). Olmert and Peretz's apologies are sincere. They offered humanitarian aid. Before the final results of our inquiry, all we can do is say we feel bad about the incident. We are genuinely trying to do something to help the victims. We are not indifferent, but we don't bear moral responsibility. They need to ask why they continue firing rockets after we left Gaza. The reason is that they are serving interests not of the Palestinian people, but interests abroad, especially of Iran. They serve goals that do not fit with Palestinian interests.
What will be your role be in the Defense Ministry?
I will be in charge of the Home Front Command and of preparing reservists. I will also be involved in the territories.
When The Jerusalem Post asked you, six months ago, what Peretz would do in the Defense Ministry, you said realignment and evacuation of the illegal outposts were the top priorities. In the wake of the second war in Lebanon, those priorities have been shifted. What are your priorities now?
We need to define the national goals of Israel, which should be: A. Preparing the IDF for victory in the next round with Iran and its proxies. B. Promoting an agreement with the Palestinians as quickly as possible. C. Reviving the Israeli welfare state. During the war, the government abandoned poor Israelis. When I walked through shelters in Acre, I saw the Israeli New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. We need to revive the concept of the government's being responsible for the people.
What should be done instead of realignment?
The coalition guidelines didn't say 'realignment.' They just called for serious efforts to negotiate with the Palestinians. We didn't even start trying.
You have always had a very close relationship with PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas. Are you still in contact with him?
I speak to Abu Mazen more than any other Israeli. I speak to other Palestinians, too. I feel there is a majority among Palestinians who support the ideas Abu Mazen advocates. This is not because of his good will, but because most Palestinians understand that Hamas does not give them a future - only agony. Hamas didn't bring any good to the Palestinians, and it shows. There is no chance for Palestinian society to take off economically without tight cooperation with the Israeli economy. We should take advantage of this. The real rift in the region is between the quartet of evil - Iran, Syria, Hizbullah, Hamas - and all the rest. There is a strong axis of moderate countries: Egypt, Jordan, the Saudis, the Emirates. They are all against Islamic extremism. They consider the Hamas government a dangerous presence for themselves. It's good for Israel to join with these countries that are all afraid of Iran. They hear [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad talk about wiping out Israel, and they know they are next in line. Ahmadinejad won't tolerate the prosperity of Dubai or other Gulf countries. So the region now is full of dangers and opportunities. We need a very creative policy to forestall the dangers and take advantage of the opportunities - and this is what the government has to do.
Last week, Peretz told the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Ministry that it was important for Israel to keep the crossings between the Gaza Strip and Israel open. Are you working toward that?
Before the airport and seaport, we have to open the crossings. We are working on all of them in the Gaza Strip, and in the meantime, we are also working on crossings between Israel and the West Bank.
What about the so-called "Hizbullization" of Gaza that IDF Chief of Staff Dan Halutz has warned of?
The way to stop this is militarily, but not only. With military means alone, we cannot change the reality in Gaza. No country on earth would tolerate shelling and weapons on its doorstep. We have to take measures to intercept the smuggling of weapons in the Philadelphi Corridor, or before the final destination - as in Beit Hanun. What should be changed is the economic and political reality in Gaza. The dominance of Hamas in Gaza is due to the poor conditions in Gaza. Hamas thrives in an atmosphere of hunger and despair, and we should change it by improving conditions in Gaza. It's in our interest to change it. We need responsible forces to be in charge of the crossings, and that's what the American Dayton plan is about: security and economy. We will do our best as a defense ministry to assist the implementation of the plan. There have been many plans: Mitchell, Zini, Tenet, etc. But I genuinely believe that General Dayton's plan is the first that will be implemented.
How can Israel stop the Kassam attacks on Sderot?
The rockets can be stopped by tracing and hitting them from the air. Nothing in this business is 100% effective. We hit the places where they are hidden. We identify the squads that fire them. In Beit Hanun, for example, we hit nine squads that fired rockets. But there are others we didn't hit.
What about the development of longer-range missiles in the Gaza Strip?
They are constantly trying to extend the range. There is no instant success in anti-terrorist warfare, no miracle weapon and no easy victory.
What lessons has the army learned from the recent war in Lebanon?
Not to allow the enemy to stockpile weapons and missiles that will be used against us. You don't have to be a general to understand that.
How will you use your military experience to compensate for Peretz's relative lack of it? Didn't he spend most of his army service in a military hospital, after all?
He was an officer before the incident in the Sinai in 1974, when two armored personnel carriers smashed his legs, and he was badly hurt. I participate in deliberations with the defense minister. I think my humble advice will be listened to and will make a difference. I am a partner in decisions. Some domains are under my authority, and I will do my best.
What should be done to prevent the nuclearization of Iran?
I will divide my answer into different layers. I still hope the international community will take effective sanctions against Iran, though the chances are not high. We should explain to the [western] nations that they are the next targets on Ahmedinejad's list, and the dangers he poses to western democracies cannot be ignored. My working assumption is that they won't succeed. Then I have to think about what the Jewish state can do about the danger. The danger isn't as much Ahmadinejad's deciding to launch an attack, but Israel's living under a dark cloud of fear from a leader committed to its destruction. He is inspired by a mystical Islamic belief. He thinks he will bring the Muslim messiah, the 12th Imam. I am afraid that under such a threat, most Israelis would prefer not to live here; most Jews would prefer not to come here with their families; and Israelis who can live abroad will. People are not enthusiastic about being scorched. I am afraid Ahmadinejad will be able to kill the Zionist dream without pushing a button. That's why we must prevent this regime from obtaining nuclear capability at all costs.
How do we do that?
First of all, by improving our defense systems. We developed and produced the Arrow, the only system that can intercept nuclear missiles. Depending on the altitude, when intercepted, the warheads do not detonate. But Israel needs to substantially improve its indigenous long-range capacities. This is a system against ballistic missiles and not the cheap, stupid rockets that cause all the problems in Sderot. To target those rockets, Peretz asked Defense Minister Director-General Gabi Ashkenazi to submit to him recommendations among four existing anti-missile systems that could be developed and produced. He will submit his recommendations quite soon. I am not advocating an Israeli preemptive military action against Iran, and I am aware of all of its possible repercussions. I consider it a last resort. But even the last resort is sometimes the only resort.
What about the warnings from people who have said that Iran learned from Iraq's mistake 25 years ago, and instead of one reactor, it has 80?
I will not discuss such operational issues in public. I didn't as an MK, and I won't now. I have said the maximum I can say. On the Iranian threat, I prefer fewer declarations and more deeds.
Even if you can't say what Israel would do, can you at least say that you know what Israel should do?
The worst Israeli words are yihiye beseder [everything will be ok]. My mentor, [Yitzhak] Rabin was against this culture of saying that. It's against my character to say, "yihiyeh beseder."
In the 2007 state budget, money should be allocated to prepare the IDF for unquestionable victory in the next round and to improve our indigenous long-range capacities. What's there now is not enough.
Going back to the "quartet of evil" you mentioned. Syria is part of that group, but Peretz has suggested that Israel should engage in dialogue with the Syrian government. Do you agree with him?
What we want to do is detach [Syrian President Bashar] Assad from the axis of evil. I am sure that we have to test his words, but there is an unbridgeable gap between our position and his. The Syrians want the real-estate assets, and then they will behave themselves. We want them to behave now, and then we can discuss real estate in the future. The first Syrian confidence-building measures should be stopping the stockpiling of Hizbullah weapons, kicking out [Hamas leader Khaled] Mashal and sealing the border with Iran. Then, perhaps, Assad can receive the positive treatment that is now being given to [Libyan dictator Muammar] Gaddafi.
What do you think will be the impact of this week's US election on Israel?
Fortunately, friendship with Israel is a bipartisan issue in the US. I am sure the House and Senate know what is good for America, and they don't need my advice.
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