The Former Dove Who's Directing Israel's War

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Defense Minister Amir Peretz, right, with chief of staff Dan Halutz, at the IDF's northern command HQ in Safed

"Olmert and Peretz have displayed a determiniation that was sorely lacking in previous governments," reads a front-page editorial this morning in the Hebrew-language newspaper Ma'ariv. That's significant praise, given the concerns within Israel that greeted the cabinet formed by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Olmert is clearly the man on the spot in the current outbreak of hostilities with Hizballah and the ongoing operations in Gaza. But perhaps the most surprising aspect of the current crisis is that a one-time member of Peace Now, a champion of social welfare issues and a negotiated two-state solution, is the man sending fighter jets over Beirut. Defense Minister Amir Peretz, once known mainly for championing issues like raising Isreel's minimum wage, is now, on two fronts, waging war.

It's no wonder that from the moment Olmert chose Peretz, a Moroccan-born ex-union leader, as Defense Minister earlier this year, questions arose about his qualifications; like Olmert himself, Peretz lacked the military command experience almost all Israeli political leaders have possessed. Defense wasn't even the cabinet position he wanted. Last fall, he defeated Shimon Peres for Labour's top post and pulled his party out of Sharon's coalition, forcing Sharon to call new elections. Peretz tried to leverage Labour's second-place finish into a prominent cabinet post. He wanted Finance, but had to settle for Defense.

Early on, in fact, Peretz confirmed some of his critics' fears. He sparred with his boss and Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) generals when he pushed to reopen a long-closed commercial crossing point into Gaza and advocated talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Before the present crisis began, he and Olmert were heavily criticized for failing to stem rocket fire from Gaza into Israeli towns — including the hometown where Peretz returned every night to sleep. When he slept, that is. Aides said then, and military officials say now, that Peretz sleeps little, putting in extra hours to micromanage military affairs.

Raised in the hardscrabble industrial town of Sderot, Peretz served as a captain in the IDF during the 1973 war, but when a tank accidentally rolled over his leg — he had been trying to free it after it got stuck in desert sand — his military career ended. Following a long rehabilitation, he entered politics, winning election as mayor of Sderot and later as a Labour Party candidate to the Knesset. Believing the conflict prevented Israel from addressing pressing domestic issues, he joined "The Eight," a group of lawmakers dedicated to ending occupation altogether.

In the current crisis, however, he has come across as anything but a dove. He has heartily endorsed the now prevailing attitude that Israel must strike not only at those who actually attack it, but also those who support, accept or do not contest their adversaries. In some ways, his political evolution is a reflection of a societal move away from multiparty approaches and toward unilateralism, a feeling that Israel must take matters into its own hands and has no choice but to fight. In Gaza and now in Lebanon, he has approved harsh responses, like the bombing of a Gaza power plant, despite critics who denounced it as collective punishment. While defending such moves as necessary, Peretz insisted on Sunday, as civilian deaths in Lebanon rose well past 100, that "the moral code of the Israeli nation does not allow us to harm civilians."

Military men who work with him say he has yet to master military terminology and seems almost giddily impressed with the IDF's ultramodern technological surveillance mechanisms. Some have questioned whether he directs the generals or they direct him. But his working relationships, both with the generals and with Prime Minister Olmert, appear to be good. And Peretz has matched tough rhetoric — "We expected Hizballah to break the rules, and now we intend to break them," he told reporters last week — with a willingness to fire back at critics. "Hizballah's growing strength did not begin when Amir Peretz showed up," he told Israel's Yedioth Aronoth newspaper. "This happened when all those now giving advice were in charge."

Still, this crisis began with two security breakdowns on his watch — the army's failure to prevent militants from taking Israeli soldiers captive twice in a three-week span — and the military operation has not gone entirely smoothly. The IDF has been surprised by the potency of some of Hizballah's weapons, including a sophisticated missile that hit a navy ship on Saturday. More rockets killed eight people in Haifa on Sunday, and Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah has promised more "surprises."

Lauding the resolve of the Israeli public, Peretz is seeking to do as much damage as possible to Hizballah's weapons capabilities and to establish a militant-free buffer zone across Israel's northern border. The IDF is continuing to pound Hizballah's positions and infrastructure and, it seems, trying to kill Nasrallah himself. Peretz said a few days ago that Nasrallah "is going to get it in such a way that he is never going to forget the name Amir Peretz." But just how he is remembered depends on whether the onetime dove can use military force to deliver anything resembling the peace he still claims to seek.

-With reporting by Aaron J. Klein/Tel Aviv