Ariga.com reports that Amir Peretz, the Labor Party leader, has given up his fight to become Finance Minister in the new Israeli government. Instead he has settled for the Defense portfolio. As Robert Rosenberg correctly points out, Defense is a double edged sword. It can make Peretz’s reputation–or break it.
The Israeli defense establishment is something akin to the Pentagon, only much more so. Naturally (and unfortunately), security issues are paramount in Israeli society. It’s almost like Israel has been living in a post 9/11 mentality for 60 years as opposed to our four. Therefore, the defense minister is always the second most powerful political position in the government. Its levers of power are enormous and its tentacles creep into every corner of the nation. Here is Rosenberg on Peretz’s dilemma:
Some regard the Peretz appointment as a ploy to ruin his career, expecting him to collapse under the burden of responsibility for the defense establishment, defeated by a domineering chief of staff, Halutz, who is considered very aggressive. But others hope that the civilian — and dovish — Peretz will bring a new outlook to the defense establishment, which by nature tends to believe that if force doesn’t solve the problem, more force will. Thus, Israel just this morning was lobbing hundreds of artillery shells into the Gaza Strip…Others hope to see Peretz use the position to cut the defense budget to help finance social welfare issues that Labor campaigned on. And yet others are pinning their hopes on Peretz to use his position as defense minister, meaning the sovereign [authority] in the occupied territories, to change IDF and Shin Bet policy toward the Palestinians — and the settlers, who are legally at least, subjects of the defense ministry. Peretz, for example, could cut off most of the government funding to the settlements, send troops to dismantle illegal outposts, and put an end to army protection for Jewish settler outlaws who don’t disguise their efforts to run Palestinians off their lands.
Personally, while I am a fan of Peretz’s and wish to see him succeed, I feel his new job is a minefield of the most dangerous kind. Certainly, he might succeed if he can rein in the IDF and intelligence apparatus and find a modus operandi with the Palestinians. But his ultimate success in the position, it seems to me, depends on his boss, the prime minister. How willing will Olmert be to engage in initiatives for peace? How much risk is he willing to take? If the answer is none or very little, then I don’t see how Peretz can win as Defense minister. Not to mention that Shimon Peres, Olmert’s number 2 (and member of the same coalition government) will constantly avail himself of opportunities to embarrass and humiliate his nemesis, who ‘stole’ the party leadership from him.
But I’d like nothing more than to be proven wrong. A strong civilian hand reining in the excesses of the military establishment would be a most welcome and radical change from standard Israeli policy. Such a pragmatic hand on the levers of power would be a breath of fresh air.