In a rare move, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu permitted Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz to address the cabinet yesterday and make his case against the expected cuts to the defense budget that would be required to implement the Trajtenberg Report recommendations.
Gantz called on the ministers not to approve the prime minister's decision to cut the defense budget by up to NIS 3 billion annually, beginning in 2012. Israel's defense needs, given the current geopolitical situation, and with threats from Arab states only increasing, do not permit such a funding cut, he said.
"We're not interested in scaring anyone, but when standing army officers start getting fired, the government will be responsible," Gantz said.
Netanyahu spoke after Gantz, telling the ministers, "I am responsible for the security of the State of Israel's citizens," and reiterating to Gantz that he, Netanyahu, supports the deep cut in defense spending.
"In order to improve the lot of Israeli citizens, it is necessary to make budgetary changes," Netanyahu said. "We are talking about a responsible change that I can vouch for personally. The same way I have protected the citizens until now, I will do so now and in the future."
Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz later sparred over the defense budget.
"Even if the budget was increased by NIS 10 billion, the Defense Ministry would still want more," Steinitz said. "Over the past four years, there has been NIS 12 billion added to the defense budget and they always want more. We need transparency in the defense budget; it would save billions every year."
Barak said it would be a big mistake to have a shallow and populistic argument over the defense budget.
"Only during the past few days we've been marking the anniversary of the Yom Kippur War in 1973, and we all still remember what happened during the Second Lebanon War in 2006," Barak said. "The government isn't meant to have such a short memory, and to forget where we were led by dramatic cuts to the defense budget that were not carefully considered."
"The defense budget will give its share to any comprehensive plan, but there's no way it can be done without insisting on the implementation of past agreements," Barak said.
Barak called on Netanyahu to fund the Trajtenberg recommendations by exceeding the current budget limitations.
"It's apparently not possible to execute deep changes in Israel and give an authentic response to the needs of the protest without exceeding the budget limits by another 0.8 percent of GDP," Barak said. "Under the conditions of an approaching global recession we must refrain from falling into the 'austerity trap.'"
Although he vehemently opposes the cuts, he said, "contrary to the claims, the Defense Ministry is in favor of transparency and full oversight," adding, in a swipe at Steinitz, "If there's any place that's lacking transparency, it's the Finance Ministry."
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