Out of commission?

Defense officials fear that 'man of peace' Amir Peretz is using them as scapegoats.

amir peretz 298 ap (photo credit: AP [file])
amir peretz 298 ap
(photo credit: AP [file])
Two weeks into Israel's second war in Lebanon, Defense Minister Amir Peretz convened a meeting with a group of former top-tier defense officials. Flanked by his military attache, Brig.-Gen. Eitan Dangot, on one side and his bureau chief and soon-to-be head of the IDF Communications Branch, Brig-Gen. Ami Shafran on the other, Peretz gave the floor to Military Intelligence head Maj.-Gen. Amos Yadlin and OC Operations Directorate Maj.-Gen. Gadi Eizenkot, who presented briefings on the ongoing military operations in Lebanon. During the briefings, the attendees - including former generals Dani Rothschild and Amos Malka - listened attentively to Yadlin and Eizenkot. Afterward, Peretz took the floor and made the following request: "I need your help in convincing the public that the IDF has made great achievements in this war." Recounting the story to The Jerusalem Post this week, one of the participants at the meeting claimed that his mouth literally fell open upon hearing Peretz's request. "Peretz was disconnected from what was really going on," the official said, referring to the heavy IDF losses at that point of the war. "The nation wasn't seeing the IDF's accomplishments, since there weren't any accomplishments to see." Since taking office on May 7, Peretz has acknowledged how surprised and taken aback he has been by the challenges he has had to face. As a "man of peace" - a title he frequently called himself during his first weeks in office, but which he has stopped using since the war in Lebanon - Peretz admitted to finding it difficult to switch from ordering strikes over lost wages to commanding airstrikes on homes and cars in the Gaza Strip. The kidnapping of Cpl. Gilad Shalit, he confessed, caught him totally off-guard. On July 11 - the day before war with Hizbullah erupted, following a cross-border attack and the abduction of two IDF reservists - Peretz even admitted in a closed-door meeting to "never having imagined" that he would be the one to order the IDF back into Gaza following disengagement, a step decided upon in response to the Shalit kidnapping. Another official told the Post that Peretz fell asleep in the middle of two strategic meetings he convened at the Defense Ministry during the first week of war. "It could be that he doesn't fully understand what he is hearing," said the official, who was present at the meetings. "But he should at least try to stay awake and give the impression that he is aware of what is going on." When he took office, the IDF General Staff was very accepting. They were used to dealing with ex-defense men, such as Shaul Mofaz, Ariel Sharon, Ehud Barak and Yitzhak Rabin, and greeted Peretz's arrival as a refreshing change. The generals also quickly won Peretz over. And Peretz - the man who had called for slashing the defense budget - changed his tune. He even almost donned the green uniform when defending the IDF in the face of demands for its budget to be cut. Moreover, he now ironically blames the Treasury for causing the current military crisis - in spite of his years of being a leading proponent of defense cuts words. An opinion poll published in Yediot Aharonot last weekend showed Peretz garnering a mere 1 percent of public support for his becoming prime minister. The man viewed in the last elections as the exciting new candidate who one day was going to change the national agenda is now trailing even in his own party, Labor. According to the poll, he would only get three percent of the public's support to remain defense minister, while two of his main rivals, former head of the Navy Ami Ayalon would get 20 percent, and former chief of General Staff Ehud Barak 8%. In addition, Peretz is now proving to be wish-washy on a crucial issue - the investigation of the war. Last week, without any coordination with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Peretz announced the establishment of his own committee - to be led by former chief-of-staff Amnon Lipkin-Shahak - to investigate the IDF. This announcement prompted his new friends in the IDF to question why he was setting up a committee solely to investigate the military, and not the political echelon, himself included. Their assumption was that Peretz was setting up the generals to take the fall in his place. Then, this week, after Olmert announced the establishment of his own committees, Peretz advisers leaked hints to the media that the defense minister and Labor Party chairman was actually thinking about pushing for the establishment of a state comission of inquiry - to be led by a Supreme Court justice - the only one that would have real teeth to instigate the necessary changes within the defense and political systems. Is this indecisiveness on Peretz's part or a lack of confidence? Advisers close to Peretz admit that he is not as experienced as his predecessor, and that he is learning as he goes along. They claim that his lack of experience is in some ways a plus, as it brings a fresh perspective to the defense establishment, and that Peretz asks questions which no one from within the system would have thought to ask. IN 2002, then minister Dan Meridor wrote a letter to Maj.-Gen. Moshe Kaplinsky, then Ariel Sharon's military attach , and warned of the lack of quality intelligence on Hizbullah. In the letter, Meridor also stressed the need for an answer to the Katyusha rocket threat, warning that without such an answer, Israel would not be able to succeed in any military operation against the guerrilla group. On both issues, it appears that Meridor was prescient. Today a private-practice lawyer, Meridor is still closely connected to the defense and political establishments. As the author of Israel's newly-formulated defense doctrine, Meridor has been granted access to doors leading to some of Israel's greatest state secrets. This week, Meridor told the Post that on the eve of war, when presented with the military's plan, the cabinet should have asked the IDF what the chances were of defeating Hizbullah and stopping its ability to fire Katyusha rockets at Israel. Had the ministers asked the right questions, Meridor claimed, they would have been told that the defense establishment did not have an answer to the thousands of Katyusha short-range rockets that would rain down in the North if Israel decided to wage war against Hizbullah. ANOTHER CAUSE for concern is the apparent intelligence failure the defense establishment encountered throughout its campaign in Lebanon. Both Chief of General Staff Dan Halutz and OC Northern Command Maj.-Gen. Udi Adam have admitted to being surprised by the kidnapping attack on July 12. A mere two days prior to it, the Northern Command had lowered the level of alert along the border - after it had been raised due to the kidnapping of Shalit in Gaza. Not everyone, however, is of the opinion that Israel lacked quality intelligence during the war. In an interview with The Post this week, MK Yuval Steinitz, chairman of the previous Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, said: "Contrary to certain claims, during this war, our intelligence was actually good. We knew about Hizbullah's 13,000 missiles; we knew their types, ranges and where they were hidden - which is why we initially succeeded in destroying a large number of them." Yet, as one high-ranking official said this week, aside from the Mossad - which was said to have been behind the intelligence on Hizbullah's long-range rockets that were mostly destroyed by the IAF during the first 34 minutes of the war - the Israeli intelligence agencies for the most part failed to gather sufficient information. "We did not penetrate the guerrilla group enough," the official said. The intelligence agencies, he claimed, were held back from taking the kind of risks involved in gathering crucial information; and they were also busy dealing with the Iranian threat. "Had we known where Hizbullah's leadership and command and control centers were, this war could have ended differently. There was a feeling that the air force was just going after random targets. How else can one explain the fact that the IAF would bomb what they said was a Hizbullah command post and then half-an-hour later the group would fire off a volley of 100 Katyushas? It means that we weren't hitting their command and control centers at all." The upside to the difficulty in obtaining intelligence, officials explained, is that it caused Israel's three intelligence organizations, Mossad, Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) and Military Intelligence, to forgo their "daily ego wars" and work together during the war in unprecedented harmony.