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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Defense officials were taken by surprise on Tuesday after hearing media reports that Labor Party chairman Amir Peretz might become the next defense minister under a new coalition with Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's Kadima Party.
But while some said the appointment could endanger Israel, others hailed the move, claiming that a civilian was exactly what the defense establishment needed to make necessary reforms and confront the country's current security challenges.
Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz on Wednesday refused to take credit for statements reportedly made by his associates quoting him as saying that appointing Labor Chairman Amir Peretz as defense minister would be irresponsible.
In a conversation with Peretz, Mofaz said the statements did not reflect his views and that he was unaware that they were made until published in the press. He said he was convinced that the comments were not made by any of his close associates, Army Radio reported.
A longtime Histadrut leader, Peretz served as a captain with the IDF Paratroopers but his career was cut short after his legs were shattered in a 1974 training accident. In contrast, Shaul Mofaz, who has served as defense minister since 2002, spent over 30 years in the IDF, most recently as chief of General Staff.
"We are a little surprised by the possibility Peretz will become the next defense minister," said one defense official. "The Defense Ministry is a complex establishment and it requires someone who understands the way things work. Appointing Peretz would mean people just don't understand how important this post really is."
Sources close to Mofaz said that it was still unclear which portfolio he would be offered in the next government. "We are a bit concerned what will be with the Defense Ministry if it is left in Peretz's hands," one official added.
MK Danny Yatom (Labor) backed his party chairman as a candidate for the Defense portfolio. In an Army Radio interview, he said that Peretz would have made a great prime minister, and therefore he could serve as head of any ministry.
IDF officers also appeared to welcome Peretz as defense minister. They claimed that his appointment could strengthen the standing of chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Dan Halutz, who would become the highest ranking military official in service if Mofaz is out of the picture.
But not everyone agreed that Peretz or any other civilian's appointment to the defense post was dangerous for the state. Moshe Arens, who served as defense minister under two governments, claimed that a civilian could prove to be the right person to head the defense establishment.
"It doesn't all have to do with military background," Arens said. "Some past defense ministers who had a strong military background were bad and some without were good."
Arens said that if he had to choose between a civilian and a former general for the defense post he would choose the civilian. "Someone who comes from the army is biased and that can affect the type of defense minister he is," he explained.