Agenda item for Amir Peretz

The new Defense Minister could prove himself useful by overhauling the IDF's reserves system.

amir peretz 298 88 ap (photo credit: AP [file])
amir peretz 298 88 ap
(photo credit: AP [file])
One of the embarrassing questions which bothered otherwise neutral observers as the recent elections drew to a close was what portfolio would be safely earmarked for Labor leader Amir Peretz if the predictions that he would form a coalition with Ehud Olmert's Kadima Party came true. It was generally assumed that Labor would come in second and that it would be preferred by Olmert for a coalition over Binyamin Netanyahu's Likud Party or another combination of right-wing and Orthodox parties. It was also assumed that, given his emphasis on socioeconomic issues and on the radical undoing of the worst aspects of finance minister Netanyahu's "anti-social" policies, Peretz would insist on getting the Finance Ministry. But Olmert had other ideas and insisted on retaining the Treasury for his crony Avraham Hirchson, which would in effect make Olmert the de-facto finance minister. The "embarrassing question" I referred to above, however, would have remained operative even if Olmert had agreed to give Labor the Treasury portfolio. One of Peretz's impressive coups at the outset of the campaign, shortly after he had defeated Shimon Peres for the leadership of Labor, was to win the active support of Ben-Gurion University president Avishay Braverman. The academic made no secret of his intention to serve as finance minister in the new government. Talk about being over-qualified. Peretz was indeed the formal party head, but Braverman - who had spent years at the World Bank and used his tenure at Beersheba University as a springboard for socioeconomic development ideas for the Negev - obviously ran circles around his party leader, who was not unknown for bouts of paranoia. In the event, Peretz was given the defense portfolio on the assumption that he would cause the least harm there - one hell of a calculation for a country that has been at war for the 58 years since its Day One. True, Peretz can jut forward a pugnacious jaw as well, or as meaninglessly, as can his Likud predecessor Shaul Mofaz when touring Kassam-targeted schools. But it is no secret that neither has come up with an effective idea for dealing with the Kassam rockets, and perhaps with the even more deadly Katyushas. LAST WEEK an ideal solution for "what to do with Amir Peretz" arose - however unintentionally. For the third year in a row the IDF's reserve defense forces were honored at the President's House. In addition to President Moshe Katsav, the ceremony at which reserve unit commanders were awarded citations was also addressed by IDF Chief of Staff Dan Halutz and by Peretz. The impression left by the blah, blah competition was that no one really knew what to do with the miluim framework, which, like many other early Israeli innovations, seems to have outlived its usefulness. This reserve system, in which discharged soldiers serve for an additional month or more a year, was adopted when the IDF was in diapers for the purpose of equalizing the numerical imbalance between Israel and the surrounding hostile Arab armies. Having many Israeli adaptations, it was largely copied from Switzerland - which hadn't fought a war for close to two centuries. The sharp increase in Israel's population and the changing nature of the Arab and Islamic threat has led many IDF commanders to entertain thoughts of going over to a small, highly-trained professional army which would eliminate the need for any reserve duty. In fact, the age until which reservists put in their annual stint has been sharply reduced. What is especially worrisome is that a growing number of reservists simply don't show up, with impunity. The result is the development of a yawning inequality between those who do serve, those who serve partly, and those who don't serve at all. Besides the consideration of equality of sacrifice there is also an objective need for a large number of less than gung-ho front-line units. There is also a need for reservists who would do their service in badly depleted police units. ALL THIS and more, including questions of the universality of service and the socioeconomic rewarding of such service, requires the prolonged attention of a civilian minister. The problem has been growing over the past few years; but all our previous defense ministers, armed with their personal security backgrounds, treated it like a hot potato. Dealing with a revamped reserve system should obviously include the question of the service - or rather, non-service - of the Arab and haredi sectors, and the current lack of frameworks for such service. This is an area in which Peretz could show his true leadership abilities.