(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Under Labor Party chairman Amir Peretz's leadership, the Defense Ministry will wield a strong hand against settlers who violently resist government policy, Labor MK Ephraim Sneh told The Jerusalem Post Wednesday.
Peretz would also cease to turn a blind eye to illegal building in the West Bank, Sneh said during an interview in his Knesset office.
Sneh, who may yet serve as Peretz's deputy defense minister pending ongoing debate over the final coalition agreement, said that under Labor's leadership there would be serious policy changes in the ministry.
"The defense establishment will remain the same, but the policy will be changed," said Sneh. "There is a long list of actions that are currently happening, that are currently permitted in the territories, that will no longer continue under [Labor] control."
Throughout the coalition talks with Kadima, Peretz took a particularly hard line toward the convergence plan, said officials close to him.
"Peretz wanted the agreement to have specific wording committing the government to evacuating the illegal settlements in the West Bank," said one Labor official involved in the negotiations. "He wanted it to be clear that the convergence plan was a priority of the government and that he would not be seen as acting alone against the settlers."
During the election campaign, Peretz met with former settlers evacuated from the Gaza Strip who had not yet received their compensation. In that meeting he stressed that, although it would not curry favor with the settlers, he remained committed to withdrawing from the West Bank. He hoped to do so under better conditions than last summer's disengagement, however.
"We are not trying to go against the settlers," Sneh said. "But we will be very, very tough on violations of the law, brutality or if people take the law into their own hands."
Peretz has refused to directly comment on how he will act as defense minister, stating that he would wait until he officially assumed the position before announcing his intentions.
Council of Jewish Communities in Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip director-general Avner Shimon said Peretz would be well advised to focus on Hamas rather than the settlers, who had only worked and sacrificed themselves for the country's good.
"I hope he will deal with Hamas, which is the essence of the problem, rather than take any significant steps toward evacuating Jews from their homes," he said.
Defense officials have stressed that future disengagements would become increasingly difficult as violent opposition from within the settler movement continued to grow. Officials close to Peretz said that, while he remained firm in his commitment to disengage from the West Bank, he was concerned over the workload in handling the position without a deputy.
"My skills and my background could be very useful if used as a deputy for Amir Peretz in the Defense Ministry," said Sneh, who served as deputy defense minister under Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak. "I think it is unfair on the part of the prime minister to send [Peretz] there without a deputy."
Sneh was considered the front-runner for the deputy position until Peretz announced he had agreed to forfeit the deputy ministerial positions in an agreement with Olmert. Widespread criticism over the size of the next cabinet led Olmert to cancel all the deputy ministers to cut the operational costs of the ministries.
Sneh, however, was quick to assert that the deputy ministers amounted to a fraction of what the ministers-without-portfolio cost the government.
Labor might ultimately decide to give up one minister-without-portfolio to secure Sneh as deputy defense minister, said one MK close to Peretz. Another option might see one of the ministers-without-portfolio assigned directly to the Defense Ministry as a second minister there, he added.
Labor MK Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, a former defense minister, is slated to be national infrastructure minister, but he is under pressure to accept a minister-without-portfolio position in the Defense Ministry because he is the only one of the seven Labor MKs slated to be ministers who is a former general.
"In this crazy world no one can predict what will be the first note that the assistant puts on [Peretz's] table when he enters his office," Sneh said. "In the Defense Ministry, a crisis can come at any moment. It would be very difficult to function without a deputy."
If he was not made deputy, Sneh said he would not seek to assist Peretz in an unofficial capacity. "Either you are there, or you are not," he said. "Either you share the burden or you don't. The substitute is not a one-dollar-a-year adviser. It doesn't work that way."
On Wednesday, Peretz called Sneh several times. Sneh said he remained hopeful that he would work with Peretz and stressed their views were very similar.
"There are few people in the Labor Party with whom I feel I identify more," he said.
Torah Lazaroff and Gil Hoffman contributed to this report.