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For much of our history, our leaders had to cope with one dominant question that affected all their decisions, and that question was when, where and how would the next war break out. Show me any other country that had to face so many wars in such a short period after World War II.
Our security needs correctly overshadowed everything else. It could not be otherwise.
The situation today is vastly different. We are at peace with Egypt and Jordan, Syria's army is a joke, Iraq has been neutralized, and our one big remaining external existential threat is nuclear and has an Iranian address on it.
The only real deterrent to a nuclear threat is nuclear capability, and not necessarily a large army. True, we face ongoing Palestinian terrorism, but we have had ample proof over the past years that a large army alone cannot vanquish terror.
THE BIGGEST problem of Israel today is our internal weakness, not the threat of invasion by an Arab army, and not even Palestinian violence.
Planes and tanks alone do not constitute the strength of a country. Additional factors have to be considered, not the least of which is social cohesiveness. A country in which a large proportion of the population lives below the poverty line is a weak country. A state in which corruption is rife, in which politicians are beholden to big business, cannot be strong.
A government that reduces its budget for university education and whose education minister has made a mess out of primary and secondary schooling is dragging the country downhill, even if it has a first-rate army with the best planes and tanks in the world. And a political system that is hidebound, estranged from the needs of the people, cannot even begin to heal our wounds.
And that, as the saying goes, is where Amir Peretz comes in. He represents the changing national agenda. Hidebound political system? His victory has already brought a breath of fresh air into the staleness of our stagnant politics.
Social cohesiveness? His first priority will be to fight poverty, to reduce that terrible gap between rich and poor. His detractors will call him a Bolshevik, an Israeli Stalin complete with mustache. In fact he believes in a market economy, is not against privatization, and is convinced that poverty can be fought without endangering economic growth. He wants to see our economic challenges tackled by a humane approach, and accuses former finance minister Binyamin Netanyahu of having ridden roughshod over the needs of the poor in an effort to increase the wealth of the rich.
I first met Peretz at the beginning of his campaign for party leadership, when he asked me to be one of his advisers, mainly on foreign policy issues. I went to the meeting with a great deal of skepticism. Although not a member of the Labor Party, I felt, like so many others, that it was only natural that Shimon Peres should remain Labor leader.
In the hour that followed Peretz captivated me. He spoke with amazing eloquence and with disarming frankness about Israel's woes and her needs, and about what he would do about them if elected.
On economic issues he saw himself as a disciple of Tony Blair, who followed a social-democratic agenda and converted the British economy into such a resounding success. "Sure, security is of prime importance," he stressed. "But today, our priority must be to tackle our internal problems - poverty, unemployment, education, health, promote clean and transparent governance, and for that we don't need generals as leaders."
IN TRUTH, if we are to emerge from our present malaise, we shall have to start thinking differently, to stop fighting yesterday's wars, and Peretz might be just the person to do it.
And that brings us back to the generals. Our strategic situation, as mentioned above, has been transformed, particularly so after the events in Iraq. Even our hard-line chief of General Staff, in a lecture in Netanya last week, stated that he saw no present threat to Israel. Yet our defense budget still stands at way above NIS 40 billion.
A former deputy chief of General Staff, Maj.-Gen. (res.) Uzi Dayan, has gone on record saying that that budget could easily be cut by 10% or more. The amount saved could be put to good use in alleviating the plight of the poor, in finding new jobs, in building more classrooms - all on Peretz's agenda. Our country would emerge stronger if that money were used for those purposes.
Peretz will not have an easy time. The obstacles he will have to overcome are daunting. The internecine strife at which the Labor Party is so adept will not take long to commence; the knives are already being sharpened. And, of course, he will have Ariel Sharon to contend with.
Yet Peretz has already succeeded in putting new life in what was virtually a moribund party. His victory has rocked the entire political system. Our politicians will have to start responding to the challenges of his social agenda. Whether we like it or not, he has succeeded in putting some color into the pallid cheeks of our democratic regime.
And that, even by itself, is a very good thing.
The writer is a former Foreign Ministry director-general.
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