The headline in the newspaper could not have been more clear: “Bound to fail.”
That was what respected military analysts in 2006 called Iron Dome, the short-range missile defense system that then-defense minister Amir Peretz promoted against fierce opposition.
Peretz was mocked as a civilian defense minister who was not a former general like many of his predecessors.
One mistake, in which he was photographed before removing the cover of his binoculars was taken as a metaphor for a defense minister who looked out of place in the post.
But looking back after Operation Protective Edge and Iron Dome’s unquestionable successes in protecting Israelis throughout the country, it can no longer be denied that Peretz had vision. He has been vindicated and the public has been thanking him, but he is not letting it go to his head.
“I think the public knows how to show love, and I have been happy to receive it,” he says. “Not in every country can a poor boy from Sderot become defense minister and be in the right place to make a decision that changes the country’s approach to security, and how it handles its surrounding threats. My entire life has been devoted to public service, not to achieving personal accomplishments or money. For me, the public’s love is the best gift of all.”
During Operation Protective Edge, Peretz was attacked by rockets fired at him while he was being interviewed on television. He was just as unfazed as when he was under attack for promoting the missile defense system.
“I endured tough criticism for my decision to initiate Iron Dome,” he says. “They recruited the top advertising companies to fight it. Now it’s clear that Iron Dome changes the IDF’s approach and helps the army make decisions without fear of mass casualties. I think it will force terrorist organizations to reconsider negotiations, because it takes away the threat of short-range rockets.”
Peretz says there are now technological solutions that can be implemented immediately to end the threat from mortars and tunnels. When he was defense minister, he proposed building a moat around the Gaza Strip, which could have preempted the building of the tunnels, but the idea was never implemented due to technical reasons.
Looking forward politically, Peretz hopes a left-wing bloc can be built ahead of the next general election to wrest control of the country from the Right. He says he would advise the leader of his Hatnua party, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, to do so, but declined to say whether he would recommend that she swallow her pride and let the leader of another party lead the bloc.
He did not rule out an eventual return to the Labor Party, where he maintains close ties with loyal political activists. But he is happy in Hatnua, and hopes a bloc will be formed that will help advance the diplomatic process that the party puts as its top priority.
At this point, Knesset Education Committee chairman Amram Mitzna is the only Hatnua MK who advocates leaving the coalition immediately to protest the current lack of a peace process with the Palestinians.
Peretz argues that the party has had an important impact on the coalition so far, but regarding the future he’s deliberately vague.
“I respect Mitzna and his opinion on diplomatic issues, but the question of whether we stay in the coalition must be decided by our contributions and influence on the government,” he says. “With only six MKs in a government with a right-wing majority and extreme right-wing Bayit Yehudi MKs, we have ensured that government will be moderate.”
Peretz praises the party’s impact on the nine-month peace process that US Secretary of State John Kerry initiated, and Livni’s role in both peace negotiations and decisions made during the operation in Gaza.
“Unfortunately the diplomatic process did not lead to an agreement due to internal Palestinian issues,” he says. “During that time Israel enjoyed the fruits of the negotiations. The talks helped improve Israel’s international stature. During war, most citizens wouldn’t want a security cabinet of only extremists. Livni’s presence in the security cabinet in the war was very important.”
Peretz says that he and Livni are still making important contributions to the government. The Knesset will focus on socioeconomic issues during the parliament’s winter session, which begins October 27 and ends in March – and meanwhile, Hatnua will mull its future.
“We will continue to hold deep discussions in our faction about whether we should stay in the government,” he says. “I can’t be enticed or threatened.
I decide based on what is good for Israel. We will have to see our impact on the coalition and determine whether to stay or go. There is a big question of whether negotiations will start again or not, and other factors.
Hatnua is a serious faction. We won’t make gut decisions.”
Peretz was extremely critical of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech delivered at the United Nations on September 29, and his plans for a regional approach to solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
He said Netanyahu’s speech was no better than that of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who accused Israel of “genocide” in the Gaza Strip.
“Both speeches went to extremes that don’t help the cause of negotiations,” Peretz says. “Abbas went too far with his statements that I don’t accept. As former defense minister, I know how many operations are canceled to minimize civilian casualties.”
He then attacked Netanyahu for not reaching out to Abbas in his speech.
Without mentioning Abbas by name, Netanyahu said the Palestinian president was guilty of facilitating the war crimes of firing from and at civilian areas, and noted his Holocaust-denying dissertation.
“The prime minister has a right to defend the IDF, but it could have been done with more moderate messages,” Peretz said. “No one can delude himself that there can be a regional peace conference without Abbas. Had he called Abbas to a direct meeting, it would have changed the way the entire world viewed Netanyahu’s speech.”
Peretz delivered his own speech at the UN Climate Summit 2014 on September 23, during which he called upon UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to appoint a special envoy tasked with fighting climate change in the Middle East. Ideally, Peretz said, such an envoy would administer a team from Israel and its neighbors, including Egypt, Jordan, the Palestinian Authority, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia.
Reflecting back on the speech, Peretz addresses the importance of the sentence “Environment has no borders.”
“Even if an agreement with the Palestinians does not occur, there are still winds that blow from the east to the west and take all of the pollution with them,” he continues.
As winds and rivers bring pollution across borders, it is essential to talk about climate change in a forum that brings together all the countries of the Middle East, Peretz stressed.
The minister says he discussed his proposal with United Nations Environment Program executive director Achim Steiner, who has requested that a special emissary be sent to the region to foster cooperation on environmental damages following Operation Protective Edge.
“At the end of the day, each big step begins with an idea,” Peretz says.
“The idea has been heard. We are taking care of this in an official and organized manner. I hope that this will start yielding results.”
Looking back at his year-and-a-half as environmental protection minister, he emphasizes how one of his most prized accomplishments thus far has involved bridging social gaps by making environmental improvements, particularly in Israel’s Arab sector. The message with which Peretz came to the ministry – the inseparability of environmental and social justice – has now become “part of the awareness of the Israeli public” and is being realized in a practical sense, he explained.
Some of the changes already being implemented in Israeli-Arab communities, particularly Beduin villages, include the integration of concealed trash collection systems, as well as the installation of household units that convert organic waste into usable cooking gas. Many Israeli-Arab towns, as well as other communities with weak economies, receive environmental project financing from the ministry without the standard requirement of matching the funds, Peretz said.
Another accomplishment that the minister says he is particularly proud of is the recent approval he received to repair environmental deficiencies encountered by residents of the South. In a NIS 45 million budget, the ministry is set to establish agricultural waste management systems, improve garbage collection in Sderot and replace asbestos roofs endangering many homes close to the Gaza border, and potentially vulnerable to rocket fire.
An additional achievement Peretz highlights is his office’s work to rehabilitate polluted rivers around the country and make these waterways “inseparable from the urban façade.”
He particularly refers to the NIS 50m.
project to transform Nahal Beersheba from a nuisance to a recreation hub, as well as ongoing work at Nahal Tzipori.
The minister also expresses pride over the environmental victory to secure more natural gas for domestic use. While policymakers had originally intended to allocate 60 percent of Israel’s gas for export and only 40% for use at home, pressure from environmentalists eventually reversed these figures. It is crucial, the minister says, to “have enough gas for all branches of the economy” – particularly for the transportation sector, which generates 50% of Israel’s air pollution.
Discussing another triumph toward preserving natural resources, Peretz speaks of the recent Jerusalem District Committee for Planning and Building decision to nix a pilot project to drill for oil shale in the Shfela region. Entrepreneurs had been eager to prove the viability of about 40 billion barrels of oil sandwiched in the area’s shale rock layer, but environmentalists – with the minister at their side – slammed the plans as potentially destructive.
Stressing that the oil shale should be saved as “a provision for the next generation,” Peretz says that the resource should only be developed if alternative, renewable solutions did not exist at that time.
“I think that the victory of the environmental organizations, together with the Environmental Protection Ministry, definitely rose to a peak with the decision to cancel the oil shale project,” he says.
The final success the minister discussed was the government decision to establish an ammonia production facility in the Negev, to replace the ammonia storage unit in its vulnerable Haifa Bay location. Such a facility can produce ammonia on-site in a much safer manner, supplying factories that are predominantly located in that region – thereby reducing the need for heavy trucking, he explained.
A piece of legislation on the horizon, which will soon come before the Knesset for approval, would require Israelis to pay NIS 0.30 for plastic bags at supermarkets and be provided with several free multi-use sacks. It is crucial to push this law forward, as Israelis are “addicted” to an “inconceivable” 2.5 billion to 3 billion plastic bags each year, according to the minister.
One challenge that Peretz says he faces is his ministry’s goal to transfer the authority over animal rights issues from the Agriculture Ministry to the Environmental Protection Ministry.
While Agriculture Ministry officials maintain that their office has been a champion for rights regulations in recent years, Netanyahu established a team to examine the disputed issue last November. Peretz argues that housing the Animal Welfare Law within the Agriculture Ministry creates a conflict of interest, as the ministry is also responsible for the growers.
Looking at the nation as a whole, however, he says he feels that awareness toward animal rights is increasing on a daily basis. He himself has four dogs and three cats, who await him at home in Sderot as he dozes through his nighttime car ride.
“Once I arrive home I suddenly wake up, and I want to sit for a moment and maybe watch television, and all the seats are taken,” Peretz says. “A dog or a cat is sitting on each chair. And then I need to tell them, ‘Guys, could one of you be so kind as to get up, so we can sit?’ “I am happy that in my house awareness about animals is very deep as well,” he adds.
At this holiday season, Peretz emphasizes the great connection that exists between religion and safeguarding animals, as well as environmental protection as a whole. The link is particularly strong this year, he says, as it is the shmita year, in which fields must lie fallow as mandated by the Torah.
Reiterating a line from his UN speech, Peretz cites a section of the Ecclesiastes Raba commentary, which describes God telling man in the Garden of Eden: “All I created – I created for you. Beware not to destroy my world, for if you do, there is no one to repair it after you.”