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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Words fail in describing the behavior of Defense Minister Amir Peretz, who declared Tuesday that he would demand the post of finance minister if reelected to head the Labor Party.
To call it "comic" would certainly capture one aspect; "pathetic" another. But neither of these words encompasses the blind arrogance that Peretz's desperate act projects, or the sense of helplessness and anger citizens feel when confronted with politicians who so brazenly cling to power despite the near total loss of the public's confidence.
Many have pointed out that if Peretz had made this proposal immediately after the second Lebanon war over half a year ago, the public would have given him credit for accepting the widespread view that he was unfit for his current position. Back then, his contention that he had preferred an economic portfolio and that it was Prime Minister Ehud Olmert who had offered him the Defense Ministry might have resonated.
There probably would have been substantial public understanding for such a move back then, since almost no one expected to be fighting a war a few months after the government was formed.
Over the last half year Peretz has claimed not only that he was fit for his job, but that he was busy cleaning up the mistakes of his presumably less talented and qualified predecessors.
Though civilians can be capable defense ministers, it is an insult to the public's intelligence for Peretz to claim that he is the right person to determine and implement the lessons of the last war. Even if he were capable in theory, it is not possible for even a talented leader to carry out difficult reforms without the confidence of the bureaucracy he leads or that of the public at large.
The best that can be said about Peretz's announcement is that he at least has indirectly admitted that he should not be defense minister. But if this is so he should resign. Whether he is given a different job is immaterial to his fitness for a critical security post at a time when our nation faces such serious threats.
If Peretz recognizes that he must step down, but will only leave if given a particular position, he is engaging in a form of political blackmail. This is not only unacceptable in its own right, but disqualifies him for any other senior government position.
These days, the ideal of public servants who will always put the public's interest ahead of their own seems somewhat quaint and, all too often at the highest levels, honored more in the breach than in practice. But even in our current cynical climate there should be limits to the degree this principle can be so blatantly flouted.
Given the public's view of Amir Peretz, and given the possibility that the current finance minister will have to resign under suspicion or in disgrace, can anyone argue that Peretz is the right man to revitalize the Finance Ministry?
We need leaders in the top echelons of government of whom the public can plausibly feel, at a minimum, that they are competent to do their jobs and will put the national interest above their own. Peretz has demonstrated a profound failure to do the latter, so there is no reason to think he would do so in a different ministry.
As it happens, Peretz would make a terrible finance minister on policy grounds alone, given his long career defending the most powerful public workers in the land. Our economy needs more, not less, of the reforms that raised growth and lowered unemployment, and that Peretz would fight tooth and nail.
If Peretz wants a hope of salvaging his political career some years down the road, he should not be attempting coalition blackmail. He is battling to retain the leadership of his party, and that campaign, already improbable, can only be weakened by such antics. Peretz's rehabilitation, if it is to be achieved, will depend on his finding a way to demonstrate his commitment to public service from outside the government. His current behavior will only serve to deepen the public's disillusionment with him in particular, and in their political system in general.