A look at Amir Peretz versus Ehud Barak as defense minister

The Winograd Committee claimed that Peretz's lack of experience "weakened" the government's ability to deal with the challenges posed by the Second Lebanon War.

amir peretz 1 88 224 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
amir peretz 1 88 224
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
There were few times when Amir Peretz shone in the Defense Ministry. One was the afternoon of July 12, 2006, just hours after Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser were kidnapped. Peretz convened the top IDF brass in his office on the 14th floor of the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv to formulate an official recommendation of how to respond which was to be brought later that evening to the cabinet for approval. Chief of General Staff Dan Halutz had already met with his team of generals and decided that the best response would be a widespread air campaign that in the first stages would hit Hizbullah positions along the border as well as key Lebanese infrastructure. A strike against 90 homes scattered throughout southern Lebanon where Hizbullah was storing its long-range Fajr missiles had been rejected. During the afternoon briefing, Halutz presented his recommendation while noting that the attack against the Fajrs was ruled out. "The long-range missiles are of strategic importance," Peretz said, cutting off Halutz during the meeting, which was attended by IDF generals and directors of the various intelligence agencies. "Our priority should first be to hit the missiles and then to take out the infrastructure." Peretz's instincts proved to be right and in the predawn hours of July 13, the IAF bombed more than 90 targets throughout Lebanon, neutralizing Hizbullah's ability to fire long-range rockets throughout the month-long war. Fears of numerous civilian casualties were also proven wrong. The decision at the time was not evidence of a deep understanding of military issues. Peretz was after all a Histadrut union leader, not a general. His understanding of defense issues was minimal and after being appointed defense minister in May 2006, he spent numerous hours studying maps, reading textbooks prepared for him on different branches and sitting in on Power Point presentations explaining classified units and operations. Instead, what he demonstrated was healthy intuition that, as he claimed often following the war, only a civilian - or outsider - who did not grow up in the defense establishment was capable of. That intuition, however, only went so far and while it followed Peretz throughout his year at the ministry, it was also partially responsible for his downfall. While Peretz could not be blamed for the Second Lebanon War that broke out just two months after he took up his new post, the Winograd Committee which investigated the war claimed that his appointment by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert as well as his blatant lack of experience and familiarity with the military "weakened" the government's ability to deal with the challenges posed by the war. "The defense minister did not work to fill the gap in knowledge and experience and did not operate within the overall strategic framework he was responsible for," the report said. "Therefore, the defense minister's tenure and performance during the conflict weakened the government's abilities to deal with the challenges posed by the war." Except for the decision to carry out the attack against the long-range rockets, Peretz's presence in security assessments was not overly felt throughout the month-long war and, according to most testimonies, he was led blindly by Halutz. "Peretz's greatest advantage at the time was that he was an outsider and was not captive to the conceptions that had been set for years within the minds of generals," says Amir Rapaport, a veteran military commentator and author of the comprehensive book Misfire on the Second Lebanon War. "Being an outsider was however the only thing in his favor, since after the first day of the war he was dragged behind Halutz since he was not an authority, and while he understood everything that happened during the war, it only clicked on him a week later," Rapaport said. THE SAME cannot be said about Defense Minister Ehud Barak. Before he took up his post last June, Halutz and then his successor at the helm of the IDF Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi were surrounded by civilians as prime minister and defense minister. Barak is a former chief of General Staff, a former defense minister and a former prime minister, and if there is anything he does bring to his current position it is years of experience. There are some people, however, who would argue this makes him unfit for the job due to decisions he made in the past, namely the hasty withdrawal from Lebanon in May 2000 and the decision not to respond to Hizbullah's first kidnapping of soldiers five months later. On the other hand, there is no doubt that Barak brings a sense of security due to his decades of experience. As one defense official said recently: "There is no one who knows defense like Barak does." This may be true and since he took office, the IDF has scored some major successes, mainly last September's successful bombing of the Syrian nuclear reactor (planning of which started under Peretz) and the prevention of a war in its wake. On the ground, however, not much has changed. The new training regimen started by Halutz and Peretz continues today, as does the IDF's procurement plan which includes the eventual arrival of stealth fighter jets and new missile defense systems. The Iranian threat has not gone away, and Hizbullah is amassing weapons and missiles at an unprecedented pace, with current estimates placing its arsenal at more than 30,000 and capable of hitting as far south as Dimona and Arad. In addition, while there is currently a cease-fire with Hamas, it is admittedly fragile and Barak has noted on several occasions that despite the lull we are ultimately on a collision course with Hamas. So what has fundamentally changed? There is today a sense of security within the public with Barak at the helm of the IDF. This sense is shared by the top IDF brass, which knows that it is with someone who was one of them and understands the work.