Ministers explain their war positions

Abstentions from ground ops vote, Peretz-Mofaz fight, show cracks in gov't unity.

olmert peretz 298.88 (photo credit: Associated Press [file])
olmert peretz 298.88
(photo credit: Associated Press [file])
The story of precisely who said what behind the closed doors of Wednesday's six-hour security cabinet meeting emerged in a little more detail on Thursday, with several ministers giving accounts of the key disputes. The cabinet's decision gave approval to the defense establishment's plan for an expanded ground operation, but delayed its implementation until Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz give the orders for it to go ahead - a green light that was not immediately forthcoming. The vote was nine in favor with three abstentions - from Shimon Peres, Ophir Paz-Pines and Eli Yishai. Yishai had said Wednesday he favored a continued major use of air power and was concerned at the risk of a high death toll among IDF troops posed by a greater use of land forces at this stage. Both Peres and Paz-Pines said Thursday they had abstained because they felt that diplomatic options should be exhausted first. "I thought that at this time it was important to give a clear preference to diplomatic channels before military ones," said Paz-Pines in interviews. "It is important that that is the image we put forth to the international community." Peres, meanwhile, told reporters that he felt it was preferable to wait and see what emerged from the UN Security Council. Speaking Thursday night on Channel 2, as the likelihood of a major ground offensive receded with news of movement toward a UN cease-fire resolution, Peres said that he had actually believed the conflict would develop into a major war and that he apologized for his flawed powers of prophecy. He also said that the option of a more major IDF offensive remained available. In the meeting itself, Peres also reportedly lamented the lost element of surprise in a ground offensive now, and warned of a deepening crisis between Israel and the Arab world. Most accounts also depicted an argument between Defense Minister Amir Peretz and his predecessor, Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz, with some describing a fiery debate and others a "lengthy exchange." Peretz, who presented the plan to expand the IDF's operations in Lebanon by tens of thousands of troops, was apparently challenged by Mofaz, who said it should have been brought to the cabinet earlier. According to one minister, Peretz replied by asking Mofaz why he hadn't done anything about Hizbullah's forces in southern Lebanon when he was defense minister. Mofaz also reportedly suggested that the IDF's operation move from north to south in Lebanon, with several ministers including National Infrastructure Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer voicing support for the idea. Olmert did not, however, bring Mofaz's suggestion to a vote, saying that it was important that the government give its full support to the defense establishment. "At the end of the meeting, Olmert stressed that the MKs had to maintain a united front for the public," said a spokeswoman for one of the ministers. "He also reminded the MKs to support the defense establishment at this time."