Ehud Barak - Olivier Fitoussi - 22122011
Ehud Barak Photo by Olivier Fitoussi
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The Knesset Finance Committee made a hurried decision on Wednesday to increase the defense budget by NIS 779 million, despite the many calls by the Finance Ministry and the Trajtenberg committee to cut the defense budget instead.

The proposal to increase the budget - to a total of NIS 60.7 billion - came at the end of the committee's meeting and was approved within minutes, without an intensive discussion.

Committee members were not told precisely how the money would be used. Instead, the details will be passed to a joint committee composed of Knesset Finance, Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee members.

Sources say the budget increase was most likely approved at the beginning of the year as part of an agreement between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Finance Ministry and the Defense Ministry. Economic leaders argued that the deal had been hashed out between Netanyahu and his close associate Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who has been pushing for a budget increase.

The Trajtenberg committee, appointed in the wake of this summer's cost of living protests, had called for cutting the defense budget in order to fund more social programs. A 3% cut to the defense budget had been discussed.

Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz said the budget increase was merely a technical matter.

Increasing the defense budget comes at the expense of the welfare budget, which is losing NIS 70 million; National Insurance, which is losing NIS 113 million; the Housing Ministry, which is losing NIS 24 million; as well as other government ministries and budgets. Also going under the knife are funds to assist demobilized soldiers and the Environmental Defense Ministry.

The coalition had recruited Knesset members to make sure it had a majority for the decision. Knesset Finance Committee Chairman Moshe Gafni was among those voting in favor.

Knesset members from the Kadima, Labor and National Union parties voted against the budget increase.

MK Shai Hermesh (Kadima ) slammed the move for coming at a time when talks were underway to cut the defense budget. Coalition members were convinced to vote in favor outside the committee's discussion, he said. "This is a slap in the face to anyone who wants transparency," Hermesh explained, noting that the committee had recently met twice with Barak and demanded that the defense budget become more transparent.

Gafni tried to calm Knesset members by stating that the increase related to money that hadn't been used by other ministries.

The Defense Ministry stated in response that it was not receiving any money beyond what was called for in the 2011 budget, which the government approved.