The Man Behind Iron Dome
Once-maligned Labor politician Amir Peretz explains how he saw what many decorated generals did not
In the days since Operation Pillar of Defense ended, there’s been much talk of Israel’s Iron Dome antimissile defense system—which chalked up an 84-percent success rate—as the breakout star of the mini-war. This defensive system is more than a pyrotechnic wonder: It represents the success of a paradigmatic shift in Israeli military thinking. Over the last decade, the IDF’s leadership, traditionally focused on offensive strategies, gradually invested in defensive systems. If deployed wisely, these defensive systems—including the Arrow antimissile system, which defends against long-range missiles; and David’s Sling, which is intended to protect against medium-range missiles—could also prove to be a political game-changer for Israel and enemies like Hamas and Hezbollah.
So, you would think that the man responsible for pushing Iron Dome through a resistant Israeli military and political establishment would be regarded as nothing less than a national hero. But until very recently, Amir Peretz, defense minister from 2006-2007, was largely regarded as clueless, undeserving of the post, and most famous for a photograph in which he viewed IDF troops in the Golan Heights through binoculars with the lens cap on. Peretz, 60, who last week placed third in the Labor Party’s primaries for the upcoming general elections, is finally being celebrated for his foresight. “I guess I could see more with those closed binoculars than a lot of those generals could see,” Peretz said in a recent interview.
By the time Peretz assumed his position as defense minister in 2006, Israeli military developers had been attempting to develop a defensive weapons system. But in the face of technological difficulties and military opposition, the plan had remained a low priority. It was Peretz who demanded that the project be put into high gear.
While some of the military and political leadership’s reservations came from Iron Dome’s technological feasibility—initial development had focused on laser technology, which is unreliable in poor weather—the greatest objections came from the highest echelons of the military, who were unwilling to include strong defensive components in Israel’s security strategy. “We call our army, the Israel Defense Forces,” Peretz told me. “But our military strategy has always been built on offensive capabilities. The military was concerned that defensive strategies would make our enemies think that we are weak. The army has always thought that the only response to force is more force.”
But as the character of war changed, and as terror became an integral part of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict during the Second Intifada, it became clear that offensive measures could not answer every threat against the Jewish state. “As minister of defense, I had to convince the army that defensive measures against terror were a sound strategy,” Peretz said.
Though the military establishment was hesitant to follow Peretz’s lead based on substantive grounds, some of the opposition to his proposed strategies was rooted in opposition to Peretz himself.
Born in Morocco, Peretz was raised in a working-class family in Sderot, the dusty Negev development town that has taken the brunt of the missiles since Hamas began launching them in 2001. Instead of climbing the military ranks (he holds the lowly rank of major), Peretz made his name through social and political activism. After serving as head of Israel’s largest labor union, the Histadrut, he turned to politics in 1999.
With a trademark broom mustache and a rotund build, Peretz didn’t look the part of defense minister. Appointed by then Prime Minister Ehud Olmert as part of coalition negotiations, Peretz was widely regarded as responsible for Israel’s numerous military and diplomatic failures during the Second Lebanon War of 2006 and was the butt of political jokes and satire.
Peretz is still angry about some of that. “I can accept differences of opinion,” he said. “But a lot of the criticism was aimed below the belt, to make me look personally ridiculous. The press hounded me.” Yet Peretz continued to promote the Iron Dome system. “As defense minister, I was often in meetings with 25 or more of Israel’s highest-ranking officers who had some 500 years of military experience between them. It was good that I, a civilian, was there, thinking out of the military box, challenging their customary way of thinking.”
Although pundits insisted that because he came from Sderot, Peretz was unable to think rationally about the military needs of the Negev, Peretz insisted that living in the town has provided him with a clearer view of civilian needs. “Because my family and I have experienced the rocket attacks, I know that we cannot expect the public to live under constant threat, without any hope of living a routine life. Defense is a valid, sound strategy, because civilians aren’t supposed to play Rambo.”
Furthermore, Peretz said, the defensive system actually provides the military with greater maneuverability and saves lives on both sides. A source close to the Israeli chiefs of staff agrees. “If the terrorists had hit hard, and there were tremendous loss of Israeli life, there would have been tremendous public pressure to invade Gaza, to eliminate the missile launchers,” he said. “The military would have had no recourse other than to respond with tremendous force, with all the loss of life that that would have entailed. But because Israelis feel safer, they are able to be more restrained.”
This, said Peretz, creates diplomatic space. “As countries like Egypt learned that they could not win against Israel with conventional warfare, organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah are learning that they can’t win with short-range missiles, either,” he said. Indeed, Peretz added that recognition of the political opportunities that Iron Dome provides is one of the reasons that President Barack Obama has given $275 million to the project since 2010—an unusual step since no U.S. companies are involved in the development or production of Iron Dome.
But Naomi Chazan, a longtime Meretz politician and former Israeli Knesset deputy speaker, argued that Iron Dome is little more than a “technological respite.” “It doesn’t really change much because it doesn’t change the Israeli perception of ourselves as victims. And as long as we feel that we are victims, and do not realize our strength and the need for compromise, we will continue to rely on force. Yes, Israel is adopting defensive strategies, but we have not changed our paradigms of thinking at all.”
Peretz makes a connection between the civilian-oriented Iron Dome system and the social protests that consumed Israelis in the summer of 2011. “Just like an army should protect its citizens, and not merely attack our enemies, the government should be making it possible for citizens to live in dignity and social security.”
Here, too, Chazan disagreed strongly. “The military continues to confuse defense and security,” she said. “They are still not realizing that real security must include welfare, health, economic stability and freedom of movement of people and goods. These are integral part of security in the 21st century. So, I don’t see change here, either.”
Both Peretz and Chazan, members of opposition parties, are critical of the current government, which, they argue, is wasting whatever diplomatic advantages Iron Dome may afford. “The government is unwilling to think in any new terms,” said Chazan. “Iron Dome is part of a defensive strategy, but it must also be part of diplomacy,” said Peretz. “This government doesn’t understand that just like defense isn’t weakness, diplomacy isn’t, either.”
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