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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Amir Peretz views himself as a fighter, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. He says that as defense minister, he is fighting Israel's external enemies but he is also, with Labor Party primaries set for May, fighting for his political survival.
In an exclusive interview with The Jerusalem Post coinciding with Yom Kippur, Peretz - with the war in Lebanon behind him - vows to review his actions and deeds of the past year both on a personal and national level. He doesn't regret becoming defense minister even for a moment while admitting that his initial desire was to become finance minister. His positive mark on the IDF, he says, will be felt for years to come.
Five months into the job and with one major war in Lebanon and several large-scale operations in Gaza already under his belt, Peretz now sees himself as the right man to rehabilitate the IDF, broken down from its poor showing in the war against Hizbullah.
Peretz has already ordered the army to begin conducting massive brigade-level training sessions, something the military hasn't done since 2000. He is also getting his hands dirty in internal military politics and last week prevailed over Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Dan Halutz and got his candidate - Maj.-Gen. Gadi Eizenkot - appointed the new commander of Northern Command.
Turning to the major threats currently facing Israel, Peretz talks tough when speaking of Iran, Syria, Lebanon and the Palestinian Authority but at the same time yearns for peace talks that he says would stabilize the entire Middle East.
If Kassam rockets continue to be fired at Israel, he warns of a deep IDF incursion into the Gaza Strip but at the same time calls for immediate peace talks with PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas once a Palestinian national-unity government is formed.
Regarding Hizbullah, he believes the next round of violence has been "delayed" for several years and that the IDF did succeed - despite the post-war bickering and finger-pointing - in creating a new diplomatic order in southern Lebanon.
Syria, he says, should watch out. Israel will not tolerate warlike comments from President Bashar Assad and is keeping a close eye on Syrian military movement and reacting accordingly. But he stresses - in the same breath - that the door to talks is always open.
"Israel seeks peace and sees in the end diplomatic agreements as the solution to bringing stability in the Middle East," he says.
Responding to news reports of the possibility that the United States might consider negotiating directly with Iran, Peretz warns that the world is deceiving itself about the Islamic Republic's true intentions.
"We need to demand from the world to be more decisive and firm against Iran," he says. "The feeling is that there a regression in the free world's position against Iran and the feeling is that Iran is doing whatever it wants despite what the US and the UN are saying."
Now with the war in Lebanon over and his numbers falling in
public opinion polls, Peretz might be about to face his biggest battle yet - the upcoming Labor Party primaries.
It was Peretz who opened the door to holding the primaries already in May, initiating a leadership contest in which he will likely face as many as a dozen contenders.
With his support base in the party of Arabs and doves eroded by the war, he will be fighting an uphill battle.
"While military correspondents work hard during the war and then get to relax and political correspondents work hard during elections and then get to relax, I have to work hard during both battles and never get to relax," he says.
How has the war in Lebanon affected Israel's strategic standing within the Middle East and against its enemies and current challenges?
The Middle East is influenced by many processes. It is clear that in our conflict with our neighbors, there is a gap between the facts we try to present and the symbols they create. Hizbullah is trying to say it won but in fact, according to the facts, the guerrilla group took a big hit with the destruction of major infrastructure in southern Lebanon and our achievements are significant.
But we need to differentiate between tactical and strategic threats. The main strategic threat today comes from Iran and its nuclearization and not Israel's closest neighbors and we have to see what the world will do on this matter. We have to focus on the facts. We are ready in a different way in the North than we were before the war. We have succeeded in lowering the dangers there and have increased our readiness.
If Israel really won, why is there bickering within the defense establishment?
The Egyptians, for example, believe we did succeed in changing the diplomatic order in Lebanon but instead in Israel, the generals and the politicians are busy fighting.
These are the strengths and weaknesses of being a democratic country. We can't silence groups in Israel and I think that some of the forces, particularly the reservists, feel there wasn't a complete victory against Hizbullah. This impacts on the way our neighbors relate to us. They use this atmosphere to declare their victory. But with time, I believe, people will see that we won and we are a strong country. In the end, I love Israel as a democratic country with all its strengths and weaknesses.
How soon do you predict another round of violence in the North?
I hope that we have delayed the conflict for a number of years. But we can't make this our strategy. We have to be ready for the possibility that violence will break out any day and that is how we need to prepare ourselves. That means that the army needs to be ready to deal with crises when they immediately erupt. Parts of the military need to be enhanced and we need to invest more in promoting anti-missile systems.
I ordered the expediting of the anti-missile systems being developed. We have not yet decided which system we will use but the director general of the defense ministry [Maj.-Gen. (res.) Gabi Ashkenazi] is examining all of the different systems and I believe that soon we will decide which is the preferred system.
How long before the system is ready?
An anti-rocket system is suitable for all of Israel's fronts. Different ranges have different issues. It is easier to find answers to long-range missiles while short-range rockets are much more difficult to intercept since they are smaller and spend less time in the air. Both Kassams and Katyushas are tactical weapons that have become strategic threats because we have yet to find an answer to them. I believe that a technological solution would provide us with more maneuverability both militarily and diplomatically.
But when will the system be ready?
Not more than two years. We want to turn the system into a significant system that can operate and this will happen in no more than two years.
Should Israel talk to Syrian President Bashar Assad?
The Syria question must be examined on two levels. Firstly, we can't ignore Assad's warlike threats and we can't blink. We take every statement seriously and we check how it affects the situation on the ground and if there is a change within the Syrian military. We need to be ready for any eventuality in the North. The state of high alert in Syria has gone down since the war but we check this every hour, every day.
On the other hand, Syria is the key to the fundamentalist axis that begins with Iran, passes through Syria and continues on to Lebanon. The major question is when the conditions for negotiations will be ripe. What is clear is that we cannot close the door in front of negotiations with Syria but we need to carefully examine what is said in Syria. We shouldn't close the door. We don't plan to ignore declarations but we also don't plan to close the door. Israel seeks peace and sees in the end diplomatic agreements as the solution to bringing stability in the Middle East.
If you are in favor of talking with the Palestinians and with Syria, which has called for Israel's destruction, why not also sit down and speak to Iran? The US is already said to be considering the option of conducting direct negotiations with Teheran.
We can't deceive ourselves regarding Iran. [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad's outlook is based on extreme and radical nationalist and religious ideas and we need to do everything possible to isolate Iran and convince the free world to see the Iranian threat as a threat to the entire free world since this is a country that declares on every stage that they want to destroy Israel.
These remarks come, not from the head of a marginal terror group, but from the head of a state. We cannot blur these intentions and we cannot be enticed by one statement or another that is intended to appease the world. Syria is different because they genuinely want to talk to us. They have said this in the past. We can't compare the statements of Syria and Iran or vice versa.
Is the world doing enough against Iran?
I think we need to demand that the world be more decisive and firm against Iran. The feeling is that there a regression in the free world's position against Iran and the feeling is that Iran is doing whatever it wants despite what the US and the UN are saying. We need to act in a more determined and clear way which includes real sanctions and sends a message that there can be real steps taken against Iran. There is a lot of work ahead of us in this field to strengthen this position within the international community.
Do you think US President George W. Bush will stop Iran?
Bush understands what the Iranian threat means. He is the most important man who will stand by Israel against the Iranian threat.
Do we need to better prepare the home front for absorbing more missiles?
No doubt there are many recommendations about preparing the home front for sitting in shelters. We need to take into account that the problem was more in apartments than houses. We intend to ensure instructions will be clear and that shelters won't be storage rooms. We need to work on this. We are dealing with it.
Iran has ballistic missiles that could cause a great deal of damage if they fall in Israel. Are you getting ready for this? Are you dealing with this issue?
There is an inter-ministerial committee working on it. We are examining our authority in the defense ministry and of the mayors to ensure that our instructions will be implemented. Israel's greatest achievement was that it was exposed to this threat and now knows it needs to prepare for it. Had we not been exposed to this threat now, then we would have been in a worse-off situation if we got exposed to it only in a few years.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has said that realignment is no longer on the table. What is the government's diplomatic direction? What about the outposts you said would be dismantled when you became defense minister?
My opinion was always that negotiations are better than unilateral steps. The Hamas victory means that the only one we can talk to is Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas. The fact that realignment fell at this stage shouldn't impair our efforts to restart negotiations, which I think we should start as soon as possible. We should judge the new PA national-unity government and what it creates.
If it launders Hamas and terror, then there is no reason for negotiations. But if it allows Abbas to negotiate, with broad Palestinian support, we have to consider it. We have to, however, see who influences whom. Will Abu Mazen [Abbas] convince Hamas that the only way to a Palestinian state is with dialogue or will Abu Mazen stand in line behind the extremists? If they stop the Kassams, release [Cpl. Gilad] Shalit and recognize Israel and the agreements with it, we are ready to talk to them. We have no reason to want to occupy the Palestinians. There is no reason to occupy them for decades to come. We want to free ourselves of the territories packed with Palestinians and we want to solve the issue of the settlement blocs.
On the outposts, I agree that the war made it less of a priority. But I intend to deal with this question as the government has decided and the law requires. I think it will happen soon. I ordered the army to prepare an operational plan. We will handle this with the utmost consideration to the residents and without unnecessary conflicts. But if there will not be a choice, we are prepared to defend the law and implement it. It will happen over the next few months.
Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) chief Yuval Diskin speaks of a major terror buildup in the Gaza Strip. Are you planning a larger-scale operation there?
We have already expanded our operations in Gaza. I have firstly ordered the army to stop differentiating between different organizations. We don't look anymore for the origins of each missile. It makes no difference if it was fired by Hamas, Islamic Jihad or anyone else. We operate against all of the organizations, no matter who fired the missile and Hamas knows it.
We are acting against weapons caches and terror tunnels and Kassam manufacturing plants. We are in many parts of the Gaza Strip. We are in Beit Hanoun and Beit Lahiya, from where they fire Kassams, and we are in Dahaniyeh to control what is going on at the border crossing [with Egypt]. But it is a heavily populated area with the potential for a major terror buildup. The struggle to stop the transfer of weapons is a daily struggle.
We intend to stop the Kassams at any price. Hamas knows that they will pay a heavy price with every Kassam fired at Israel and if they don't stop them, they know we will consider harsher and deeper operations into Gaza. We hope the pressure that we are currently creating in Gaza will make all of the organizations realize that they have to stop the rocket attacks.
This is running on Yom Kippur. What are your regrets for the past year? My only apology is from everyone who feels that I didn't keep all of... Let me say it this way: I want people to give me the benefit of the doubt when they look at my accomplishments in these months in the government and give me more time before they judge me. On Yom Kippur, I always apologize to my family, because they pay the price for my public activity. This is the time for soul-searching and I am doing it on the national and personal level. When I examine myself, I believe my impact over the last few months has been for the better of Israel, and the public will realize it.
Do you not regret becoming defense minister?
People who say I should not have taken the defense portfolio are defying democracy. We are the second largest party. There are three main portfolios: Foreign affairs, finance and defense. I preferred the Treasury but we didn't get it. For me, the second most important portfolio was defense. I took the portfolio, because Labor believes in flying both flags. I am sure my contribution as a socioeconomic civilian defense minister was very positive and that my presence here was good for Israel.
There has been talk in the Prime Minister's Office about giving you the vacant welfare portfolio in addition to the defense portfolio you have now. Are you interested?
I don't hide that I don't intend to stop dealing with the socioeconomic issues we care about, such as minimum wage, pensions, etc. Your idea has to be presented to the public. I am staying defense minister. But if there could be a way that will allow me to fulfill our socioeconomic agenda, I will consider it seriously. Our socioeconomic outlook can be implemented with changes in the budget and advancing laws we support. We can't forget that the minimum wage law I advanced is already being felt in the workers' pocketbooks.
Would Labor vote against the budget in the Knesset if there are further socioeconomic and defense cutbacks?
I abstained on the budget in the cabinet, because although I felt the achievements we received in the budget negotiations were important, I couldn't ignore the fact that the coalition agreement wasn't fully implemented. I don't intend to bring about the break-up of this government. This government can bring about great achievements. The prime minister is running the country well.
We can learn lessons in the IDF and we will. We won't make choices between tanks and hungry children. I don't think a different government with the makeup of the current Knesset would be a better alternative. The fiery talk of inflaming the region [of Israel Beiteinu] and the capitalism [of Likud] is not better. The government has had only five months. Now we need to strengthen the existing coalition. We need to see how much expansion would cost. I don't think there is a need to expand the coalition. This government can last four years.
What is your strategy for defeating the dozen other Labor candidates after the doves and Arabs that make up your base of support in the party have abandoned you?
I think differently. Labor members know I ran the party well during the war. I don't think anyone in Labor, even extreme doves, think we shouldn't have responded to the Hizbullah threats the way we did. I don't think people should be saying retroactively what they would have done differently. Everyone realized we had no choice but to respond to Hizbullah. As time goes by, the war's accomplishments will stand out more. The kidnapped soldiers issue will be advanced. We won't expand on this topic to not endanger efforts to bring the soldiers home.
When do you want the Labor primaries to be?
I am ready for elections at any point. At any moment. The party interests are less important than those of the nation now but I have no problem with there being an election. My strategic assumption is that the sooner it is, the more likely it is for me to win. My strategy is to lead the country and implement Labor's world view. People will see there is no one more loyal than me to the party's outlook. People who say my being in the defense ministry proves otherwise should see that the reality is different. Labor has returned to its roots and I am sure that what we have accomplished in this partnership in the government has brought more results than any other party.