No time for medals

The IDF, for all its faults, isn't an army of medal wearers. A favorite put-down among soldiers for someone getting a bit too big for his boot is "hold on, the truck with the citations is on its way." Another favorite military saying is that "medals are given out to cover monumental mistakes." While senior officers in foreign armies go around with dress uniforms groaning with medal ribbons, most IDF generals have a single ribbon, the 1982 Lebanon War campaign medal. Against this background, it seems a bit out of touch for Defense Minister Amir Peretz to urge Israelis Monday to "look at the full half of the glass." The reason for the optimism? "There were battles in which soldiers proved themselves heroes and there will be lots of citations." Peretz might not be aware of the fact that citations are given out by the chief of General Staff and are not within the purview of the minister, but it's hard not to sympathize with the defense minister's need for some instant positive publicity. The opinion polls published last weekend could hardly have been worse for Peretz. Less than six months ago, he was seen as the exciting new candidate who one day was going to change the national agenda and prove that a union leader from a development town could become prime minister. Now he's coming in last in a list of prospective prime ministers, with only one percent of the public supporting him for the top job. In his current position he's only doing a little better - three percent think he's the best candidate for defense minister, badly trailing two of his main rivals within Labor, former head of the Navy Ami Ayalon (20%) and former chief of General Staff Ehud Barak (8%). When it comes to military credentials, Peretz is going to find it hard to keep his own with these two. If we're still on the subject of medals, Barak is the most decorated soldier in IDF history (4 citations and one Medal of Distinction) while Ayalon is one of only 40 soldiers in the nation's history to be awarded the Medal of Bravery and is an official "Hero of Israel." But Peretz's lack of ribbons isn't the reason for his suddenly becoming so unpopular. Among the trio whose resignations are being demanded by the protesters outside the Knesset, Peretz's situation is the most difficult. The polls show he has less public support than PM Ehud Olmert and Chief of General Staff Dan Halutz, who are undergoing crises of confidence themselves. But Peretz carries two additional burdens: First, he was seen from the outset as a highly unlikely and inappropriate candidate for the defense job. His almost total inexperience in defense affairs has now been borne out by his insignificance in the decision-making during this war. Olmert at least won a general election and Halutz has served in the IDF for almost four decades. Second, Peretz also has to deal with open rebellion within his party, while Kadima and the IDF high command are - at least publicly - united behind their leaders. But Peretz isn't planning to resign, not even to give his rivals satisfaction by agreeing to a reshuffle in which he would receive the previously coveted Finance Ministry. Meanwhile, he is trying to do something that the ex-generals who would replace him can't: remind everyone that he is a man of the people. That's why he's more interested in visiting with civilians on the northern border than posing next to another tank. It's not a bad tactic at all. Peretz has much more potential for striking a chord with hard-working farmers, who are after all the reason the IDF is guarding the border, and he definitely knows more about reservists' employment rights than any former chief of General Staff or admiral. Perhaps if he did something serious to help the reservists out, he might manage to regain a bit of his lost popularity. Giving out medals, on the other hand, might blow up in his face. Given the current mood among the reservists, someone might just turn him down.