Fences to mend, hurdles to climb

The residents of the West Bank aren't the only ones who fear Amir Peretz as defense minister.

IDf operation 298 (photo credit: AP [file])
IDf operation 298
(photo credit: AP [file])
Amir Peretz's dramatic entrance into the Defense Ministry next week will be met with a great deal of suspicion - even fear - on the part of the public, the media and the defense establishment. The Labor Party chairman's appointment not only raises questions about his ability to keep the country safe, but also arouses serious concerns regarding the future of the West Bank settlements - particularly the illegal outposts. On Sunday, Peretz will be thrown into the deep end of the defense pool, even though he has yet to learn to tread water. As IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Dan Halutz made clear this week, Peretz can forget about receiving the customary 100 days of grace granted to new government ministers to learn their jobs. With critical issues - such as Iran's nuclear program, Kassam rocket fire in the south and expected cuts to the IDF budget - already waiting on his desk, this head-first dive is inevitable.
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But judging by Peretz's declarations prior to and since the elections, if there is one issue he plans to pounce on it is the settlers and the more than 100 illegal outposts mentioned in the report prepared last year by attorney Talia Sasson - an issue that even came up in coalition talks with the ruling Kadima party. "He will come down very hard on the settlers," a close aide to Peretz said this week. "He is an enthusiastic supporter of the Sasson report on illegal outposts and has repeatedly called for the evacuation of large segments of the West Bank." And the settlers are concerned. While they didn't consider outgoing Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, who oversaw and directed the disengagement from Gaza and violent evacuation of Amona, a great friend, settlers said this week that at least he was someone they could talk to - someone whose door was open to them. This is not what they expect from Peretz. Due to his vast military experience and first-hand acquaintance with the West Bank and the settlers, Mofaz, according to one official from the Council of Jewish Communities in Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip, was an expert on the illegal outposts. Mofaz was so connected to the settlements that there was even an official under his command, Ron Shechner, who resigned last November after being tied in the Sasson report to the alleged direct and illegal establishment of outposts in the West Bank. "Mofaz was familiar with the outpost issue. He was even open to the idea of trying to legalize some of them," the official claimed. "But Peretz makes arrogant declarations about evacuating outposts when he really doesn't know the first thing about the sensitive issue." But the outposts aren't the only thing the settlers are worried about where Peretz is concerned. With Prime Minister Ehud Olmert already speaking of a widespread withdrawal from the West Bank, an enthusiastic left-wing defense minister, they say, could make life all the more difficult. In a pre-election interview with The Jerusalem Post in January, Peretz said he was in favor of continuing to fund health and education services in the settlements, but not the building of homes. Nor are outposts and convergence the only issues worrying members of the Right in relation to Peretz. Before the elections, Peretz met with Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and recently, during a speech following a Labor Party Central Committee meeting, he called the PA leader a "partner for peace." But a "partner for peace" is not the way everyone in the defense establishment views Abu Mazen. Since Hamas's rise to power, the defense establishment has taken a strong stance against talking with the Palestinians, repeatedly warning of creating a two-headed PA - Abu Mazen whom we talk to and Hamas whom we avoid. Other issues, such as the continued closure of the territories and the status of the Karni crossing, are also on the agenda for the new defense minister. Which raises another challenge he faces: trying to keep defense officials from retiring as a result of his assuming his post. For now, however, officials say that other than Mofaz and his personal entourage leaving, no big shakeups are expected. PERETZ IS interested in creating a special "defense squad" with whom he will be able to consult on matters of security, to make up for his lack of experience. The IDF Planning Directorate has spent the last few weeks preparing booklets on every branch of the military for him to study. According to his aides, there is still a strong possibility Peretz will appoint a deputy, even though he and Olmert officially forfeited the right to appoint deputy ministers in the new government. The front runner for this position is Ephraim Sneh, who served as deputy defense minister under Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak. Deeply respected by the IDF General Staff, Sneh will bring Peretz the legitimacy he lacks in the defense field and will be able to assist him in learning the system more quickly. One change Peretz is almost certain to make is in the post of Defense Ministry director-general, currently held by Ya'acov Toren, a longtime figure in the defense establishment and the former CEO of Elbit Systems Electro-Optics ELOP Ltd. Officials said Peretz intends to replace him with a former military officer who knows the system inside and out. Two of the names being bandied about are former deputy chief of staff Maj.-Gen. (res.) Gabi Ashkenazi and current head of the IDF's Planning Directorate, Maj.-Gen Yitzhak Harel, who will soon be retiring from the military.