Politics: Riding into politics

Halutz comes across as someone who genuinely cares – about Israel, its image and its soldiers.

Dan Halutz 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Dan Halutz 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Former IDF chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. (res.) Dan Halutz has good reason to be afraid of interviews. He gained a reputation for being insensitive to human life from an August 2002 interview with Haaretz in which when he was asked how he feels as a pilot when he drops a bomb, he said: “I feel a light bump to the plane as a result of the bomb’s release.”
So it was not surprising that Halutz chain-smoked throughout an interview with The Jerusalem Post at his office at Tel Aviv’s Kamor Motors Company, the local importer of BMWs, which he recently announced he would leave to “seek new challenges.”
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But what was surprising was that contrary to the image that infamous interview and others gave him, Halutz comes across as someone who genuinely cares – about Israel, its image and its soldiers. At 62, he could have decided to retire and spend time with his two grandchildren.
Instead, he intends to announce that he is entering politics after his legally mandated post-IDF cooling-off period ends in January. He says this next tour of duty is intended to help the country, not to redeem his image.
There is no guarantee that the voters will allow him to do that after the Winograd Commission judged his leadership in the Second Lebanon War a failure. Halutz has not said openly that he is going to Kadima, but his criticism of Binyamin Netanyahu and his views on diplomatic issues are good hints he is headed in that direction.
Kadima leader Tzipi Livni said last weekend that Halutz “is worthy for Israeli politics” and “worthy to enter Kadima.”
But she did not say specifically that she wanted him on the list, and she left open the possibility that she would prefer he go elsewhere.
A new party that might be formed by journalist Yair Lapid would be an easier option, because then he would not have to sell himself to Kadima activists. But either way, he has an uphill fight ahead when he enters the political battlefield.
Halutz was born in Tel Aviv in 1948 to a family with origins in Iran and Iraq. He served in the IDF for 40 years, culminating in stints as commander of the air force and chief of General Staff. He quit following the Winograd Report in January 2007.
In the interview, he is cautious because he is not yet a politician. But he speaks openly about his past, the country and where it is headed.
So why do you want to be a politician?
The word “politician” has developed a negative connotation in Israel, so that’s not the word I would use. I have lived in Israel my entire life, and I devoted 40 years of service to Israel. After looking at our current reality and a lot of contemplation, I realized that it would be right for me to try to help Israel however I can, based on my experience. There are many things that I have done to help the country that are known, and some that are not.
Subjectively, I think I have what to contribute. I want to be part of the decision-making that impacts Israel’s fate. But to do that, I know I will have to pass the test of the public. I will have to cross that river, but I have crossed scarier rivers and the fact that we are sitting here today means I crossed them safely.
Do you think the public has forgiven you for what the Winograd Commission called failures?
I will only know after the test. People realize now that the Second Lebanon War improved our situation strategically against our enemies. The public is not monolithic. There might be those who like or hate someone and some who don’t decide their opinion until decision-time. I have accomplished a lot, and I have made mistakes. I believe there have been more successes than mistakes. But at the end of the day in a democratic system, I am not the one who will be asked.
Would you be a political asset for a party?
I have no idea. I haven’t taken any polls myself. The press has and the positive numbers are going up.
Winograd Commission member Yehezkel Dror gave an interview to Israel Radio Monday in which he said: “The fact that leaders make mistakes and don’t take responsibility is unacceptable. A leader who fails must do the requisite public soul searching, admit his mistakes publicly and explain to the public why he is nevertheless worthy to continue.” Have you done that?
I don’t know anyone in Israeli politics who implemented responsibility the way I did. I don’t remember others who took responsibility when facing a big test. Most politicians try to shift responsibility to others. I didn’t shift blame to anyone else. I decided to resign from my post as IDF chief of General Staff after compiling an organized work plan to deal with deficiencies and mistakes that occurred in the defense system that I commanded.
I say implemented responsibility, not took responsibility, because it’s not something you take or shift away. It is part of your job for better or worse. Many people with key positions see responsibility as only credit, but responsibility is also debit. Being in charge, no matter of what, involves responsibility.
There are bereaved parents of Second Lebanon War soldiers who say they will protest outside your press conference when you enter politics and do everything possible to prevent your election. What do you say to them?
In a democracy, people have a right to elect and get elected and to protest. I will never say a word to bereaved parents beyond joining them in their pain.
Do you approve of the mass campaigns of the Schalit family?
The family must do everything possible to work for their son’s freedom and the country must do everything possible so bringing about the freedom of its son Gilad won’t do irrevocable damage to Israel. Both sides are right. I have nothing against what the family has done, and I would do the same as a father. But two prime ministers implemented national responsibility and decided [against making a deal]. You can argue with them. But you can’t say they are not acting according to their authority and obligation.
Every moment Gilad is in Hamas captivity pains me. But the leaders of a state have other obligations in addition to the obligation to do everything possible to bring their citizens home. I want to let the leadership decide. I don’t want to say what I would do, because I don’t know all the details, so it would not be responsible and would do more harm than good. But I would say the term that has been used, that “every price” should be paid, can lead us to the wrong places. I say every effort not every price, because there are other diplomatic and security considerations for a leader that don’t have to be considered by the parents.
Is Binyamin Netanyahu doing a good job as prime minister?
I don’t want to answer that yet. I respect him as prime minister, and I have know him for many years. I separate between the person and the policy.
OK, let me put it this way: Do you approve of Netanyahu’s policies on the diplomatic issue?
I don’t think his policies are clear to me. By saying he would agrees to another freeze if the Palestinians recognized Israel as a Jewish state, he revealed that [whether he would freeze construction] is just a question of price. I think Israel’s fate will not be decided in two months of a freeze. Two prime ministers drew borders at least in a general sense. The borders are basically known. But I don’t want to comment about what my borders would be.
Do you expect another war with Hizbullah and would we fare better this time?
I don’t know. The Middle East is unpredictable. The past has proven this. There is always potential for war when there is conflict. There is no such thing as a war that goes well. War is always bad, because there is always damage and there are always casualties. So to say it would go better or worse depends on expectations. I don’t think casualties should be the test. A war is tested based on what we achieved that we intended to. I believe that every war in the Middle East will have worse results than what preceded it, because both sides learn lessons.
Has UN Resolution 1701 that ended the war proven to be a mistake in light of the rearming of Hizbullah along the northern border?
The reality in the North changed due to the war. Since then, we have had four and a half years of quiet in the North.
That is one test. I didn’t know this would happen. The stature of Hizbullah changed in Lebanon, not necessarily for the better. It became a political force, but it is also seen as a terrorist group that took over the land. Looking back at Resolution 1701 through the perspective of decisions made over Israel’s 62 years, I would say that many were not carried out as written.
Do you have any regrets?
No. It pains me that prices were paid. We acted justifiably. I hope that if we are challenged again in the future, we respond with full force.
Is that still possible amid the changing nature of warfare within civilian populations in an age of global media with nonstop coverage, when public relations matter so much?
Our international image over the past two years has not been great. This can have an impact [on how a war is waged]. We cannot ignore the international community. It was easier for Alexander the Great because there was no press or Internet back then. He either came back with the head of his enemy or he didn’t. Now things are different. There is press in real time, and the other side manipulates it.
In fights between democracies and those that are far from being democracies, there is a basic asymmetry in culture and norms that make it harder for the democracies, especially Israel with its image. For example, the same day as the Gaza flotilla, 45 civilians were killed in Afghanistan. This got one line in the newspapers and we got five commissions of inquiry, not because we were more or less right but because the State of Israel is seen differently.
What the Americans, Russians, and Chinese can do, we can’t because they have nothing over them but God and we have 200 countries and God. It is not just. It’s frustrating, but we have to understand that it’s reality, so we have to do the right things to be able to act where we need to without getting the world against us.
Was the Gaza disengagement correct in retrospect?
I didn’t decide to do it. I was the chief of General Staff, and the army carried it out it in the best way an army could, in Israel or anywhere else. I think the disengagement was right even now looking back. Operationally, it enabled the IDF more freedom to act in Gaza. After the disengagement, I think we should have reacted with full force to the first rocket, and we didn’t.
But I was a soldier, not the decisionmaker.
Would you support further unilateral withdrawals?
Experience has proven that they are questionable. They must be accompanied by the implementation of clear diplomatic policies. If they are not, it erodes the goal of a unilateral step of shifting responsibility from me to someone else. If you don’t demand that responsibility from the first time, the impact erodes. It must be done from the first time. You must stand up for security every time it is violated, because if you don’t, you give the other side the chance to find cracks in your policy. But on the other hand, security is not the only way to solve problems. It must be accompanied by diplomacy.
Is that what you think about Iran as well?
A nuclear Iran is a threat to the world, so the world must deal with it and not Israel.
Last year, at an academic simulation about Iran and the day after it goes nuclear, you said the following: “I am not underestimating the significance of a nuclear Iran, but we should not give it Holocaust subtext like politicians try to do.” You also cast doubt that the US and Israel could ever agree to cooperate on a military strike against Iran. Would you still say such things?
I don’t think every time there is such a threat, the model of comparing it to the Holocaust is relevant. The US is Israel’s most important friend and the relations are not unilateral. In any relationship, there is give and take. If you anger the other side on one thing, it is hard to expect it to be your buddy on something else. Only computers don’t have emotions. People are harder to deal with. The US sees Iran correctly as a threat to the entire world.
Are you implying that Netanyahu harmed efforts to prevent the nuclearization of Iran by turning down President Barack Obama’s request to extend the settlement freeze?
All I will say is that leaders are people. In the balance of interests, if we want them to think of our interests, we have to think of theirs. I don’t place the Palestinian and Iranian issues on the same level. They have different solutions and decisions. Based on what the Americans are saying, they understand the Israeli view on Iran more than they did before. I don’t know whether this will lead them to take action.
Is Israel ready to act alone against Iran if necessary?
I don’t answer that question.
Do you have a message to Diaspora Jews?
The unity of the people of Israel is essential and ahavat hinam [unconditional love] wouldn’t hurt. To survive, we need to be united. We don’t always have to agree on everything, but disagreements can be articulated politely.
And to the voters in Israel?
We will talk again when I am a politician.