‘I Was Wrong about Netanyahu’

Of all the Likud loyalists who have walked out on Binyamin Netanyahu, last week’s defection of Gen. Yossi Peled is arguably the most damaging. The short, crisp former chief of IDF Northern Command made a surprise appearance at Ehud Barak’s campaign launch and starkly confessed to the cameras: “I was wrong about Netanyahu.”

Peled, who survived the Holocaust as a hidden child in his native Belgium, joined the Likud soon after he retired from the army in 1991. He rallied to Netanyahu’s colors following the party’s 1992 defeat and played a key role in his 1996 triumph.

Now the general has had enough. The ultimate pragmatist, he resigned from the Likud because its leader, as he saw it, had failed. He has not joined the Labor Party, but is campaigning for Barak, a onetime rival who beat him in a bitter contest a decade ago for chief of the general staff, because he thinks he might succeed.

Peled is seen as a patriot, who made no demands of Barak and received no promises. His switch personifies the dwindling relevance of ideology. Like it or not, the dream of Greater Israel, from the Jordan to the sea, is dead. Like it or not, the Palestinians are on the way to a state. Elections are reduced to political beauty contests: who can win, who will deliver, the cost-effectiveness of modern warfare.

We talked in the modest Tel Aviv office suite, decorated with mementos of his 30-year military career, where Peled runs a trading consultancy.

“I was wrong,” he said briskly, “because I am the kind of person who is not impressed by words. I believe in checking what a man did, not what he says. What matters is the result. The result of three years of Bibi’s government is too negative.

“Six years ago, when he asked me to come and help him, we sat here, in this office, talking about a new country, a new society. He came to me; I didn’t go to him. We talked about people being happy and proud to live in this country. We dreamed together how to make progress in the peace process, to give a chance to the future.

“We worked together for three years before the last election. I gave my time freely. I trusted this man. I believed in him. He was young and didn’t owe anybody anything. And look what happened. You cannot run a country like this, where one man’s survivability is more important than everything else. You can’t fool all the people all the time.

“Unemployment is high. Nobody in the world speaks with us, even Bill Clinton, one of the best presidents Israel has ever had. We cannot speak between ourselves. We have become more and more divided — Ashkenazim versus Sephardim, poor versus rich, religious versus secular.

“After I came to Israel with Youth Aliyah in 1949, I grew up on a kibbutz. The biggest honor we could get, as 10- or 12-year-olds, was to drive a horse and cart. Some of us were not so good at controlling the horse. Let me tell you a secret. Never, never did the kibbutz change the horse. They changed the driver.”

Peled vehemently denied that he had crossed an ideological line. When Likud friends begged him not to leave home, he retorted, “No party is my home. My home is this country.”

Although he was not a “political” general, Peled was known as a right-winger even when he was in uniform. He joined Yitzhak Shamir’s Likud, he told me, because he feared the then-Labor leader, Shimon Peres, was ready to give away too much in his search for peace. What divided the parties eight years ago, he argued, no longer divided them now.

“If you take Bibi Netanyahu, if you take Ehud Barak, if you take Yitzhak Mordechai, you will not find an ideological difference,” Peled said. “All of them will follow the Oslo agreement, the Wye Plantation agreement. Nobody can stop it now.

“If you ask me whether I’d like to have a Palestinian state beside me, I say no, but nobody can stop it. What matters now is for Israel to be involved from the beginning, to make some kind of restrictions on that state. Can it have an army? You name it. If we’re not involved, in five, 10, 15 years, we shall get it as a fact in the worst possible situation.

“The question is, who is the man who has the qualities and the chance to lead us to a different future. I came to the idea that it’s Barak. He promised me a lot of things — to push forward the peace process, to change our economic situation. He promised me to make a serious effort to take care of the 200,000 unemployed. That’s the kind of thing he promised me, but nothing for myself. I didn’t ask, and he didn’t promise. He promised a better future for my child. And I trusted him.”

That trust, I sense, is as qualified as the trust he once invested in Netanyahu. If Barak doesn’t deliver, Yossi Peled will not hesitate to confess: “I was wrong about Barak.”