Interview: Dan Halutz
He’s the ex-IDF chief of staff hoping to follow Yitzhak Rabin’s and Ehud Barak’s journey from military to political victory
Taking off? Dan Halutz started his military career as a combat pilot. Entering politics “was not part of my plan from day one,” he insists
Pilots, they say in the Israel Defence Forces, are the most cautious of men. They will check something repeatedly, and then go back to check it again.
So it is not really a surprise to find the ex-fighter pilot and former head of Israel's military, Dan Halutz, is treating his first foreign media interview since entering politics with the utmost care.
Halutz, a grizzled 62, can be found these days at the back of a maze of offices behind a luxury-car showroom in downtown Tel Aviv. Dressed for a winter day in slightly incongruous jeans and an air force-style jacket, he exudes low-key amiability coupled with an understandable anxiety as to what a British newspaper might want to know about him.
There is also, perhaps, a slight, though unexpressed, regret that he is no longer doing the job for which he was clearly destined since he joined the Israel Air Force in 1966. Halutz rose rapidly through the ranks; despite leaving the IDF twice, once to study - he has a degree in economics from Tel Aviv University - he became Air Force Commander in 2000.
With more than 4,000 flying hours and a series of successful operations under his belt, Halutz, a protégé of Ariel Sharon, was deemed a natural to be named IDF chief of staff in 2005. No stranger to controversy - he was closely identified with the air force's targeted killing of terrorists and, in particular, an operation in 2002 which resulted in over a dozen civilian deaths - he lasted only two years in the job, resigning after a report criticised his handling of the second Lebanon war.
New regulations were brought in to prevent an immediate cross-over from military to political life, so Halutz has had to wait a fingernail-chewing three years in order to join a political party. Scarcely had the time-limit expired than he signed up wtih Tzipi Livni's centrist Kadima party. And now he has to imprint himself on the public consciousness so that he gets a good place on Kadima's list of potential Knesset members. The higher up the list, the better his chances of getting a Knesset seat.
So Halutz has hit the ground running, making two early populist interventions: one in the aftermath of the Carmel Forest fire, and the other, a speech designed to tug at the nation's heartstrings about Israel's two most famous missing-in-action combatants, Ron Arad and Gilad Shalit.
BORN: Tel Aviv, 1948. Parents of Iraqi and Iranian origin
MILITARY CAREER: Trained as fighter pilot 1966-68. Flew 43 missions during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, downing three enemy planes. Chief of air force staff 1995. Appointed IDF chief of general staff 2005. Oversaw successful disengagement from Gaza. Resigned 2007 after critical report on second Lebanon war.
NON-MILITARY CAREER: Economic degree Tel Aviv, and Harvard Business School degree. Involvement in high-tech companies. Chairman of Etgarim special-needs charity which he describes as "holy work".
PERSONAL LIFE: Married 38 years. Three children, two grandchildren
"It's too early for me to be defined as a politician," Halutz says, right off the bat. "I have to learn about politics first." Of course. But no-one who has been in charge of thousands of men and women gets there without understanding the nature of the game.
"This is something different," he laughs. "It takes you to the dark side."
The case of Shalit, says Halutz, "can be divided into two aspects, the logical and the emotional. As the rabbis say, both sides are right. On one hand, the family is doing what they should to get back their child; and they should do whatever they can. On the other hand, we have the prime minister who should take into consideration other issues when he makes his decision process. He should address the future impact of any decision he will take. I am saying that the term, "we should release Gilad Shalit by paying any price", is something that the leader of the country, generally speaking, cannot accept. The fact that two prime ministers, Olmert and Netanyahu, who understood that they would gain a lot of popularity if they brought Gilad home, did not take that step and did not accept Hamas demands, means that there are a few things which are unacceptable in making such a decision."
Halutz is aware that it is perhaps a lack of local intelligence which has prevented Israel taking a military option to free Shalit. His understanding, he says, is that during the negotiations, "the other side raised the price. And there are limits that the government can't cross because it has to think of the day after."
Was there a moment during the negotiations for Ron Arad when an opportunity to secure his release was missed? Halutz shakes his head with resignation. "There was a point at which the negotiators came to our government with an offer, for us to pay a few million dollars and to release a few hundred terrorists. Once this offer was not accepted, we lost track of Ron Arad. He was transferred to the hands of the Iranians. I don't want, as an Israeli civilian, and as an ex-military man, for us to miss that point with Gilad Shalit, and that is why I raised the subject of Ron Arad when addressing the issue of Gilad Shalit."
One senses Halutz is itching to get into the national debate. As an ex-pilot he is big on responsibility: in the wake of the Carmel Forest fire, he suggested that both Prime Minister Netanyahu and the Interior Minister, Eli Yishai, needed to take responsibility for what went wrong in dealing with the fires. He very pointedly did not call for the pair to resign. Given the barracking that Netanyahu received last week at a memorial event for the 44 victims of the fire, Halutz's advice may not go amiss.
So what can the ex-chief of staff bring to the table?
"I served my country for 40 years and I saw it as a personal mission. Anyone who has the feeling that he can contribute something, small or big, to ensure the survival of the Jewish nation as a democratic Jewish state, should do so to the best of his ability."
Entering politics, he insists, "was not part of my plan from day one". Rather, he says, he took the decision after 18 months of discussions. "Look," he says, "the sticker on my forehead says security. But along with my experience in security and defence, I think that Israeli society has too many divisions: between settlers and haredim, minorities, foreign workers, the issue of national wealth and how it is acquired… the gap between rich and poor is too big."
But he reserves his disdain for "those who won't participate" in Israeli society, yet take advantage of the political system. There will come a point, sooner rather than later, he believes, when the burden of those who work and serve, compared with those who do not, will become too much.
"Anyone who lives in Israel should give to the country and get from the country. Not everyone should give the same, and not everyone should get the same. But we have to admit, we have a miracle here. Sixty-two years of fighting and we have a developed country which is one of the best in hi-tech, technology, etc. We have to look at the half-full glass, and not just at the empty."