JERUSALEM, Israel (AP) — Can Israel afford to hand its nuclear briefcase to a man who spent much of his brief and unremarkable military service fixing tanks?
The country is embroiled in a heated debate over whether Labor Party leader Amir Peretz, picked as Israel’s next defense minister, has the credentials for one of the nation’s most high-stress jobs — one that includes dealing with an Iranian nuclear threat, possible anarchy in the Palestinian areas and the dismantling of Jewish settlements.
Leading the critics was Matan Vilnai, an ex-general in Peretz’s own party, who said: “At the moment he (Peretz) doesn’t have the skills for this job. He will learn within a year or two.”
The public seems to share these concerns. A Dahaf Institute poll published Friday in the Israeli daily Yediot Ahronot had 76 percent of Israelis saying Peretz’s appointment was a mistake. The survey of 500 Israelis had a 4.5 percentage point margin of error.
However, others said a civilian is just what Israel needs right now. “Israel’s entire policy to this day has been based on military thinking, the use of force,” said Reuven Pedatzur, a defense analyst for the Haaretz daily. “I hope he (Peretz) will see the picture not just from the military point of view.”
Peretz, a former union boss, had built his political career on social issues, campaigning for raising the minimum wage and introducing universal pensions. The post he really wanted was that of finance minister, but Israel’s incoming prime minister, Ehud Olmert, balked and offered him the next most prestigious portfolio — defense.
Olmert’s Kadima Party and Labor reached a coalition deal on Thursday, enabling Peretz to be sworn in as Israel’s 16th Defense Minister as early as next week.
Olmert said he was confident in Peretz as his defense minister. “I have faith in his judgment and in his sense of responsibility,” he said.
Peretz has declined to discuss the defense job in public until he is sworn into office.
Despite a lack of military pedigree, Peretz has a reputation as a take-charge manager and can be expected to stand tough against any opposition. And his dovish political views could serve as something of an antidote to Israel’s rapidly deteriorating relationship with the Palestinians.
Peretz won’t be the first civilian to serve in the post, but previous civilian defense ministers such as Shimon Peres and Moshe Arens had strong ties to the military establishment. Most of Israel’s defense ministers have been legendary war heroes and generals, such as Moshe Dayan, Yitzhak Rabin, Ezer Weizman, Ariel Sharon, Ehud Barak and outgoing Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz.
Peretz’s military career pales in comparison.
He played a supporting role as an ordnance officer in a paratroopers’ brigade during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. In 1974, he was critically injured when a military vehicle rolled over on him, crushing his leg. Peretz was hospitalized for nearly two years and underwent dozens of operations to save his leg. He still walks with a limp and is recognized as a disabled army veteran.
He now faces a crash course as the country’s military secrets will be revealed to him for the first time.
Analysts say there is little time for on-the-job training, and Peretz will definitely have a steep learning curve. A newspaper caricature this week mockingly showed Mofaz handing the nuclear briefcase to a sweating, anxious Peretz and saying: “Try to use this as little as possible.”
Ex-general Danny Rothschild said the defense minister doesn’t have to be a military man. “The job of the defense minister is to oversee the army, to give the army direction and make sure it is doing what it is instructed to do,” said Rothschild, president of the Council for Peace and Security, a group of top retired army officers.
Peretz’ outsider status could also help him dictate Israel’s defense policy with a wider world view than an ex-army officer would bring. “His predecessor (Mofaz) saw things as an army chief of staff,” said Rothschild. “I assume he (Peretz) won’t look at his job like a chief of staff, and therefore he has a chance to do it much better.”
Uzi Dayan, who served as deputy chief of staff and national security adviser, dismissed claims that Peretz’s dovish views could weaken the military’s stance against the Palestinians. Dayan said the policy toward the Palestinians is unlikely to change, since there already is a consensus that, with the militant Islamic Hamas in power, Israel does not have a partner for dialogue and was moving toward unilateral steps.