Analysis: End of the Peretz-Halutz pact

Both men are unpopular and now seek to distance themselves from each other.

peretz speaks 298.88 (photo credit: Roni Schutzer)
peretz speaks 298.88
(photo credit: Roni Schutzer)
There have been three distinct phases in the six-month relationship between Defense Minister Amir Peretz and IDF chief of General Staff Dan Halutz. In the first couple of months of Peretz's tenure, Halutz acted as patron to the military neophyte, reveling in his release from the close control of his recent predecessor in the post, Lt.-Gen. (res) Shaul Mofaz. Halutz was portrayed by his supporters in the media as the responsible grown-up, making sure the novice minister didn't cause any damage. Peretz, stung by public criticism over his unorthodox appointment, willingly accepted the tutelage. Then came the war in Lebanon. The civilian and military leaders of the IDF came under blistering fire from the officers' corps, the Knesset and the media. Given his perceived over-reliance on air power, Halutz no longer had the professional advantage over Peretz and both realized they had to cling to each other and present a united front to survive. Though many tried, it proved almost impossible to drive a wedge between the two. But it was obvious all along that this was a short-lived alliance. Both men are still deeply unpopular with the public and now seek to distance themselves from each other. The first crack in the facade of unity was the appointment of the new OC Northern Command; it took them six meetings to reach a decision. Halutz won that round, managing to push through his candidate Maj.-Gen. Gadi Eizencott. Peretz retaliated by refusing to grant permission for a much more drastic IDF operation in the Gaza Strip. And now there's the bust-up over Peretz's unprecedented refusal to endorse Halutz's decision regarding the appointments of division commanders involved in the war. Halutz is trying to regain the allegiance of his senior officers and project an image of business as usual. That's why he prefers giving those officers whose conduct during the war was criticized a second chance even though it caused a public outcry. He is only giving them what he wants for himself. Peretz is playing to a different crowd. His credibility both as minister and leader of the Labor Party is in tatters. He wants to prove that he is the one calling the shots and setting the pace for IDF reform. The Winograd Committee, investigating the war, is a time bomb ticking away for both of them, but since it could take a year until the committee issues its report, it might not even matter for Peretz. The Labor leadership primaries are scheduled for May 2007; Peretz is trailing badly in the polls. If he eventually loses, he will also forfeit his position as the party's senior minister and have to leave the Defense Ministry. His most serious rival now in the leadership race is MK Ami Ayalon, former Navy commander and GSS (General Security Service) head, a man with impeccable defense credentials. Peretz can't afford to let himself be seen over the next few months as Halutz's subordinate. Any major ministerial decision he makes now will have to be seen through the prism of the primaries. The fierce attack launched on Wednesday by National Infrastructure Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer on Halutz was no coincidence. Ben-Eliezer is now allied within the party with Peretz and his call for Halutz's resignation - accusing him of not consulting with the defense minister before deciding on the appointments - was made in the interest of supplying Peretz with some much needed supporting fire. Will Peretz cancel the appointments? That would cause an unbridgeable break with Halutz, garner some public support but attract criticism for politicizing the army. And if Halutz is to receive such a public slap in the face, will he feel forced to resign, his post becoming untenable? Perhaps he'll just swallow the humiliation and wait out the next six months, hoping that the Labor Party members will get rid of Peretz for him.