Analysis: Firing Kahalani: A battle that Peretz can't win

33 years after the Yom Kippur War, the Kahalani myth of the charismatic tank commander is still going strong.

amir peretz 298 88 ap (photo credit: AP [file])
amir peretz 298 88 ap
(photo credit: AP [file])
Does anybody still remember that only a year ago we were talking about Amir Peretz, the political genius? His latest move, to try to fire Avigdor Kahalani, sets new standards of political incompetence. It's not a question of whether Kahalani does his job well as head of the Defense Ministry's Social Department, or if the department is at all needed; you just don't do that to Kahalani. Not only does his picture appear under "Hero of Israel" in any Zionist encyclopedia, but he's also one of the best-connected people in Israeli politics and media. How did Peretz ever think he could mess with him and get away with it? Just look how he easily Kahalani launched a personal campaign against Peretz - all it took was a couple of well-placed phone calls and all the papers, TV and radio channels ran with the story. Thirty-three years after the Yom Kippur War, the Kahalani myth of the charismatic tank commander who almost single-handedly stopped the Syrian onslaught in the Vale of Tears on the Golan Heights is still going strong. It's a myth that he continues to build with books, lectures and guided tours of high-schoolers to the battlefields. No matter that after receiving the IDF's highest medal for bravery, his career went nowhere special. Brigadier-general was as far as he got in the hierarchy, after everyone had predicted he would be the first Yemenite chief of General Staff. Neither was his political career a resounding success. After one term as a Labor MK, he left the party in protest over Yitzhak Rabin's agreement to cede his beloved Golan to the Syrians and founded the short-lived Third Way Party, which after one short Knesset term failed to cross the electoral threshold in 1999. But Kahalani didn't remain unemployed for long. There was never a shortage of friends and admirers from the army days to arrange lucrative jobs. One of them was previous defense minister Shaul Mofaz, who two years ago appointed Kahalani to head up the new unit that replaced the old Nahal and Youth Department. The department had been a political stronghold in the ministry, organizing through the various parties' youth movements Nahal groups that would strengthen kibbutzim and other border outposts as part of their military service. But gradually the IDF got out of the kibbutz business and idealistic recruits preferred to join more prestigious units rather than the often ridiculed Nahal battalions. The department tried to justify itself by drafting yeshiva dropouts into the Nahal Haredi unit, but that had only a limited success and didn't warrant a whole department. Kahalani was tasked with reinventing the archaic organization and lost no time in gathering a team of his good old friends to fire up Israel's disaffected youth. There are still grumbles that the department is only duplicating work already being carried out by the IDF's Education Corps, and that its NIS 16 million could be better used elsewhere. The department is so obscure that the ministry doesn't even mention it on its Web site. But no one would have dared to move Kahalani - until Peretz came along. It's unimaginable that Peretz, himself a Yom Kippur veteran, was unaware of Kahalani's following, but he has other problems. One of the drawbacks of the Defense Ministry is that unlike other government departments, there's very little room for cronyism. Almost all the senior jobs by definition are filled by former senior officers, leaving little scope for aspiring ministers to build their political base by appointing influential party members. For most defense ministers that isn't a big problem - the aura of the military is more than compensation enough. But Peretz hasn't enjoyed that aura. On the contrary, the job seems to most Israelis several sizes too big for him. So he needs to boost his party credentials and the only "civilian" department in his ministry is Kahalani's, historically a preserve of the Kibbutz Movement. The kibbutzim have a disproportional influence in Labor, with 12,000 members. In last year's primaries, they voted for Shimon Peres almost to a man. Now Peretz is trying to woo them over by refilling the department with kibbutz functionaries, starting with Yoel Marshak, the head of "Missions" in the Kibbutz Movement. But what should have been a straightforward political appointment, like hundreds of others made in every ministry, turned ugly, with Peretz being criticized in the cabinet by his colleagues, including Labor ministers. To make things worse, Zeev Shor, the Kibbutz Movement's secretary, denied that they had pressured Peretz to move Kahalani as part of a "political deal." That said, he added that it was still "natural that this job should be filled by a kibbutz member." Poor Peretz: Now there's no way he can get it right. He's managed to maneuver himself into a position where whatever his decision will eventually be, he's going to incur more political damage. All for a mid-level appointment that should have been a piece of cake for an experienced operator like himself.