For Peretz, trial by fire at Defense

JERUSALEM, April 24 (JTA) — In the run-up to Israel’s election, Labor Party leader Amir Peretz promised a “social agenda” that would help the nation’s poor and weak. In coalition negotiations after the elections, he demanded the Finance Ministry as a base for social change. In the end, Peretz accepted the defense portfolio, and critics both in and outside Labor are asking whether that means Peretz has given up on the drive for social reform that helped him win 19 Knesset seats at the ballot box. Other critics ask a different question: Is Peretz, a civilian with no experience in government, the right man to be entrusted with the nation’s defense with a new wave of Palestinian terrorism expected, Iran’s leader threatening Israel with nuclear destruction and a major West Bank withdrawal in the offing? Peretz’s social agenda focused on four main issues: raising the minimum wage from around $730 to $1,000 per month, improving pensions, subsidizing more medicines and spending more on education. Despite all the sound and fury of the campaign, however, Labor ended up without any social ministries except education. Critics say the health, welfare, housing and immigrant absorption portfolios were never remotely in Labor’s sights during more than two weeks of coalition negotiations with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s Kadima Party. They claim this shows that Peretz is not really serious about social change, and that Labor’s social agenda is doomed. Peretz’s supporters in Labor argue that social policy is a matter of collective government decision, not a question of who controls a given ministry. They maintain that most of Labor’s social agenda has been written into government guidelines and that the new administration will therefore be obliged to carry it out. For example, the minimum wage will be raised in installments, starting with a $110 raise in June and reaching the full $1,000 a month by the end of the government’s term in 2010. Peretz confidants also suggest that as defense minister he will be able to initiate cuts in the $8-billion-a-year defense budget, freeing up funds that can be diverted to social projects. The Israeli media largely has been skeptical. Analysts doubt whether Peretz, a former trade union boss, will be able to slash defense spending, most of which goes to salaries. “The claim that Peretz will take the ultimate social role by cutting defense budgets and redirecting funds to social causes is nonsense at best,” social affairs reporter Ruth Sinai wrote in Ha’aretz. “Does anyone actually believe he will lift a finger against defense contractors with their strong labor unions? Is there a chance the former Histadrut labor federation chair will take measures that will result in hundreds or thousands of career army layoffs?” It’s not just Peretz’s credibility on social issues that will be under scrutiny; so, too, will his ability to handle national security. From Day One, Peretz will have to contend with a plethora of complex defense issues: how to deal with Palestinian terrorism under a radical, Hamas-led Palestinian Authority that refuses to condemn attacks; how to prepare for the challenge posed by Iran’s nuclear program, which is led by a regime that talks about wiping Israel off the map; how to accelerate completion of Israel’s West Bank security fence, delayed in part by bureaucratic bottlenecks in the Defense Ministry itself; and how to facilitate a major West Bank evacuation with minimal friction between the army and evacuated settlers. One of the first documents to land on Peretz’s desk will be a major review of Israel’s defense doctrine carried out over the past 18 months, which identifies non-conventional nuclear threats and sub-conventional terrorist threats as more urgent than the traditional threat of conventional warfare. Peretz will have to decide how to translate this into military spending, reshaping the structure of Israel’s armed forces and, in general, reordering security priorities. For example, does this mean Israel can cut back on armored forces, while spending more on special counterterrorist units and air power? Besides these tough calls, Peretz will have to decide whether to continue building up an independent strategic branch in the ministry — which the Israel Defense Force strongly opposes — and how to go about rationalizing Israel’s cash-leaking military industries. As a civilian who only reached the rank of captain during his military service, Peretz also will have a tough time gaining the confidence of the generals and ex-generals who people the defense establishment. Indeed, some analysts say Peretz is in a no-win situation and is bound to fail, while others maintain that he has a great chance to show that he has what it takes to make a national leader. Some consider it an advantage that Peretz comes to the defense establishment without a long military resume. “An appointment of this kind can stir fresh security thinking and eradicate the personal considerations that exist when the defense minister comes from one of the cliques inside the army,” military analyst Amir Rapaport wrote in the Ma’ariv daily. Peretz also will be able to use his position as the minister responsible for contact with the Palestinian territories to keep an open channel to P.A. President Mahmoud Abbas, while maintaining Israel’s boycott of the Hamas-led P.A. government. Peretz believes that only if contacts with Abbas fail to yield progress toward an agreement should Israel move for unilateral withdrawal. The defense portfolio will give him full scope to test that thesis. By taking on defense, Peretz has roused critics in the Labor Party and outside. The insiders accuse of him of abandoning the social agenda out of a lust for power; on the outside, critics like the Likud’s Yuval Steinitz, who favors a civilian defense minister, nevertheless argue that Peretz is the wrong man for the job. The onus of proof clearly is on Peretz. He will have to show that he can handle the defense portfolio, and, at the same time, push through important social reforms. Otherwise, his future as a national leader could be in jeopardy.

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