The redemption and resurrection of Amir Peretz

The former defense minister fires back at his critics two years after the Second Lebanon War and vows to complete his comeback against all odds.

amir peretz 88 224 aj (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
amir peretz 88 224 aj
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Former defense minister Amir Peretz was received warmly on Sunday night at the wedding of his former bodyguard Maor and his bride Caroline that took place at the Agadata Hall near Kiryat Malachi. That wouldn't normally make news but this bodyguard lost both of his legs when he was hit by shrapnel from a Kassam rocket while on duty protecting Peretz in Sderot in November 2006. That rocket attack, which also killed 57-year-old Fatima Slotzker, inspired a series of demonstrations outside the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem and Peretz's home in Sderot. Peretz told the angry and vengeful demonstrators outside his home that despite the increase in rocket attacks, he opposed a military operation into the Gaza Strip. "It was hard for me as a Sderot resident to go out to them and say that the size of a demonstration wouldn't impact the size of an IDF operation," Peretz recalled this week. "I told them that I wouldn't send soldiers out to satisfy the demands of a specific sector even if it's my own, that when a defense minister decides to embark on an operation based on a demonstration that day, he should leave his job." Some of the same people who mocked, cursed or demonstrated against Peretz that day welcomed him at the wedding, in a sign that they are starting to forgive him. It may be because time heals all wounds, or because they realize that if things haven't gotten better in Peretz's absence, maybe it wasn't his fault in the first place. They see that two years after the Second Lebanon War, none of the three kidnapped soldiers are home, and rocket and mortar attacks still continue on Sderot and its satellite communities despite a fragile truce. And that one year after the political upheaval in the Labor leadership, the party has fallen to a record low of 14 seats in the polls, despite the plunge in support for Kadima and Gil, two parties that had siphoned off former Labor voters. So maybe Peretz really wasn't so bad after all. In an interview at his modest office in the Knesset marking the two-year anniversary of the outbreak of the Second Lebanon War that led to his downfall from the political peak he had reached, Peretz says he is beginning to see a change in the way people look at him. "Two years later, people are starting to see things in proportion," Peretz says. "The public is more positive about me now than before. There was real incitement against me. Perhaps not serving in the government has mitigated the poison that spewed on me for so long." Peretz has publicly expressed regret for accepting the Defense portfolio despite his lack of military experience, but he has in no way accepted the blame for the failures of the war that was focused on him even though he was only in office for three months when it began. "I decided to absorb all the frustration of the citizens of Israel that should have been aimed my predecessors," he says. "It came under my watch, so the anger was aimed at me." Peretz admits he had another alternative. He could have saved himself a lot of grief and a lot of blame by revealing information that he knew from being defense minister that could have helped him clear his name. But he decided against it. "I had to decide whether to absorb the disproportionate campaign against me or reveal all the facts," he says. "Disclosing what I knew would have hurt the country. I decided to pay an unjustified price instead of harming Israeli security." With a sheepish grin on his face he adds, "Sometimes the fact that I am so responsible works against me." For instance, Peretz hints that one of the reasons that he decided against invading the Gaza Strip that he could not have told the demonstrators had to do with the alleged military operation that according to foreign sources took place in Syria last September. "When I was defense minister, the conditions were different," Peretz says cautiously. "When I made decisions, I had to take into account that there was another threat that could have developed into a wider front. Just in case that would have happened, I had to keep most of the forces free to use if necessary." The alleged operation in Syria was reported to have taken place three months after Peretz left the Defense Ministry. Since then, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Peretz's successor, Ehud Barak, have been fighting over credit for its success. But chances are that Peretz as defense minister would have been heavily involved in planning such an operation. Sources close to Peretz have been quoted in the Hebrew press accusing Barak of dangerously delaying the alleged operation just to distance it from Peretz's tenure. PERHAPS THE only subject that makes the former trade union leader's adrenaline jump more than raising the minimum wage is his animosity towards Barak. Peretz initially justified his decision to run for Labor leader in 2005 by saying that he had to save the party from Barak. Since then, relations between the two have had their many downs and very few ups. Peretz is convinced that Barak voted against Labor in the last general election to spite him. Six days after Barak defeated Peretz in the Labor race, Barak made a point of firing him from the Defense Ministry in the most humiliating way possible: by sending him a fax when he was in the middle of security consultations. Now Peretz takes solace in the fact that Barak has not succeeded in improving national security any more than he did, despite the former IDF chief of General Staff's storied reputation as the most decorated soldier in the army's history. "Anyone who thought that replacing the defense minister would be the answer was deluding himself," Peretz says. "People thought that if we had someone in charge who had the image of Rambo, it would change everything. But now everyone sees that even the greatest magician couldn't stop the Kassams." He takes credit for fixing problems in the army that Barak initiated. He says the Second Lebanon War awakened the public from the misconception that the country could afford to have what Barak infamously called "a small and smart army." During his two years as defense minister, Peretz initiated training for reserves who had not trained for years. He made sure adequate equipment and supplies would be on hand and regularly checked. He initiated an approach of looking at the defense budget 10 years ahead. Peretz appointed a civilian as IDF chief of General Staff for the first time in Gabi Ashkenazi, who had retired from the army. He changed the tenure of the chief of General Staff from three years with an optional fourth for good behavior to an automatic four to eliminate politicization in the IDF. And most importantly from Peretz's standpoint, he renewed and expedited the development of the Iron Dome short-range anti-rocket system, which he realized when he entered the Defense Ministry had been halted. Peretz emphasizes that he made that decision in his second week in office, long before the war. He laments the fact that the system could have been completed eight years ago, after it was initially devised as a solution to Katyusha attacks ahead of the withdrawal from Lebanon and before the first Kassam was fired from Gaza. "I paid the price for the rotten fruit left for me by my predecessors and I'm happy that my successor received the ripe fruit that I left behind," he says. PERETZ ALSO boasts of his successes as leader of Labor, which he says include winning 19 seats despite the formation of Kadima, obtaining seven important portfolios in coalition talks and the appointment of the country's first Arab minister - Science, Culture and Sport Minister Ghaleb Majadle. According to Peretz, having Majadle in the cabinet has prevented crises that could have broken out with Israeli Arabs on several occasions, including when a warrant was issued for former Arab MK Azmi Bishara's arrest and after terrorist attacks committed by Israeli Arabs in Jerusalem. Regarding his lack of accomplishments on socioeconomic issues, Peretz shifts the blame to Barak and to Kadima for not honoring the coalition agreement he negotiated. Since Barak replaced him as Labor leader, Peretz has kept pressure on him in the party. Peretz forced Barak to initiate the process of selecting a new central committee and other party institutions in an election that will be held next Tuesday. That race is key for Peretz, because he is expected to use it to increase his foothold in party institutions where key decisions will be made. Once he is strengthened inside Labor, he intends to use his power against Barak. According to Labor's constitution, primaries must be held ahead of a general election to select the party's candidate for prime minister. Peretz is seriously considering demanding another race in which he will challenge Barak again. "I don't hide that I am not a disciple of Ehud Barak, but he was chosen to head Labor and I respect him," Peretz says. "However, we cannot allow a party leader to think the party is his personal property. I don't rule out working for new primaries in Labor and if the polls continue the way they are now, I have no doubt that we would need to work to ensure that we will have a new chairman. When a general election is called, I will consider demanding elections for Labor leader." While Peretz does not hide his criticism of Barak, he openly praises the leaders of the other two large parties. His relationship with Olmert has improved since he left office. He said he does not mind that Olmert has remained in office while he himself has been forced out. But he does say that Olmert "was in the same soup with me" and "was a partner in what led to Ehud Barak being elected," referring to the war. Peretz led the opposition in Labor against dissolving the Knesset and forcing Olmert out. When Barak later accepted his point of view, it led to a reconciliatory meeting between the two that has not reduced tension between them. "Moving up the elections would have harmed the country," Peretz says. "If I put my own personal considerations first in my priorities, I would have worked to bring about elections, because Barak would fall big. But I decided to put national concerns first, because I prefer stability." PERETZ'S ALL-OUT hatred for Barak contrasts with his surprising respect for Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu, the man with whom he sparred on socioeconomic issues for many years, but who apparently impressed Peretz when it came to keeping secrets for the good of the country. He bashes his cohorts in Labor who have admitted their opposition to elections had to do with blocking Netanyahu from returning to power. "If the people want Bibi, that's democracy and we should respect it," Peretz says. "There were times in the last two years when Bibi has proven to be someone who conceded his own personal gain for the national interest on issues sensitive to Israel - and those who understand will understand." But Peretz still disagrees with Netanyahu on most issues, including the forthcoming prisoner exchanges to bring home kidnapped Cpl. Gilad Schalit and apparently the bodies of Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev. While Netanyahu warns against releasing murderers from jail, Peretz says it is a price that must be paid. "People who say that paying a hefty price for kidnapped soldiers encourages more kidnapping are wrong, because that motivation is there anyway," he says. "The world has to know that for us, any soldier is valuable, alive or dead. We are willing to pay a heavy price to bring them home and that shouldn't change." Peretz says Israel missed an opportunity when it signed United Nations Resolution 1701 that ended the war, because the document lacked operative clauses about the kidnapped soldiers. He says Israel should have also insisted on better monitoring in Lebanon to prevent the rearming of Hizbullah. Asked whether he regrets raising expectations by declaring at the start of the war that the soldiers kidnapped by Hizbullah would come home, Peretz says such statements were merely intended for internal consumption and as a message to Hizbullah. "The goal was to create the circumstances that would make it possible to bring them home," he says. "We said we would bring them home, both for our own morale and to tell the enemy that we wouldn't tolerate anything less." Contrasting the situation in the North and South, he says he still opposes a Lebanon-style invasion in the Gaza Strip. "Our strategy in the Gaza Strip of applying constant pressure to make clear to the terrorists that they cannot act freely is correct militarily," Peretz says. "We knew when we left Lebanon that the Lebanese army would come in. In the South, there was no one to replace the IDF if we left, so we would be back in the same situation we were in before. That's why the decision isn't simple." Peretz divides the threats facing the country today into threats of morale, like the rocket fire on Sderot, strategic threats from Syria and Lebanon and the one existential threat, which comes from Iran. On the Iranian issue, Peretz is careful not to say too much. He still receives high-level intelligence briefings as a member of a key Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense subcommittee. Peretz says sanctions have not been enough to prevent Iran's nuclearization and that Israel must do everything possible for the world to see that the threat is real. He says that if a military move is made, it should be conducted by an international force under the leadership of the United States. "America must decide what operations are necessary to stop Iran's nuclearization," he says. "Israel is doing everything necessary and possible to be ready to prevent a situation in which Iran holds a nuclear bomb. There is no doubt that on this issue we cannot afford to mumble or to blink. We have to say that we won't hesitate to use any means that could prevent this threat. If we end up being alone against the Iranian threat, it would not be good. But if we get there, I am sure we would have the ability to give the proper answer." While Peretz will almost assuredly not be in power when key decisions will be made about Iran, he says he is proud to have been there when key decisions were made about other issues affecting long-term security, even if he is not given credit for them. "Authors and artists often only receive credit for their accomplishments years later and sometimes only after they die," Peretz says. "I suffered so much unjustified criticism, but the credit that is due to me will come sooner than happens to them. My fate won't be like that of an author or artist. I am silent in order to defend Israel, and a time will come when we can speak about why more freely."