Some people say the Israel Defense Forces is the best army in the world. Some claim this may once have been true, but it has become fat and rebellious. There is no argument about one thing: The IDF is the country's strongest pressure group. If the army wants something, it gets it no matter what. The cost and circumstances are unimportant. It wanted another NIS 1.5 billion and received it yesterday.
Every year the cabinet conducts the traditional debate over the defense budget. The General Staff prepares for it for weeks. On the appointed day, a delegation of 20 senior officers joins the cabinet meeting equipped with sophisticated laptops. They dim the lights and show colorful PowerPoint presentations, classified films and frightening intelligence assessments, accompanied by red arrows all aimed at the heart of the country.
They explain to the ministers that the threat surrounding us is growing. It's always growing. Even after the peace with Egypt, even after the peace with Jordan, even during the Iran-Iraq war. At one time the threat came from Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser, then from the maneuvers by the Syrian army, and later from Iraqi president Saddam Hussein. Now Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is providing the greatest scare tactic of all - nuclear weapons.
The officers spell out all the threats, and the chief of staff mentions to the cabinet, by the way, that "it will be your responsibility if our requests are not approved." And the ministers sit shrinking from fear, willing to give the chief of staff their own salaries if he'll only stop.
The latest maneuver - adding NIS 1.5 billion to the defense budget two and a half months after the Knesset passed the state budget - was easy pickings. After all, the officers were facing a panic-prone prime minister and a finance minister who wouldn't dream of opposing his master. Only four months ago, Yuval Steinitz demanded a cutback of NIS 3 billion in the defense budget; how is it that he is now defending the additional funds?
According to the report by the Brodet Committee, which examined the defense budget, the IDF should have cut its budget because economic growth this year will be less than 1 percent. But not only did the army fail to institute cutbacks, it received additional funds. That's exactly what we were afraid of - that the additions proposed by the Brodet Report would represent a level from which the only way to go was up.
The defense budget will be NIS 48.6 billion this year and 53.2 billion next year - the highest in the country's history. In such a huge budget there is tremendous flexibility - many development and long-term plans that can be postponed if you want NIS 1.5 billion for a specific purpose. But the army wants it all: to carry on with all its projects, to buy the most expensive plane in the world, to maintain extraordinary service conditions that let members of the regular army retire and receive pensions at age 42, to continue with the luxurious defense delegations in New York, Washington, Paris, Brussels and Berlin, and not to reduce, God forbid, the large number of defense attaches all over the world - a work rota for those close to the plate.
Anonymous defense sources said this week that the budget addition stems from a "dramatic development." That's the method: frightening and unexplained words to cause panic in the cabinet and the entire House of Israel. Only two weeks ago Defense Minister Ehud Barak said that "Iran does not constitute an existential threat to Israel." Only two weeks ago he said "I'm opposed to panic." But now that's exactly what he's doing.
Barak sometimes speaks in lofty words about the importance of social affairs and welfare. Occasionally he sheds crocodile tears about the bitter fate of the weak and poor. But in fact he harms them time after time. In order to get the NIS 1.5 billion there must be budget cuts on learning centers for weak students, extra hours for students with difficulties, daycare centers for young children, as well as centers for youth at risk and single mothers. There must be cuts on research and development, professional training, business mentoring, immigrant absorption, policing the cities and health care.
When the cabinet approved the Brodet Report, the army promised to submit an efficiency plan to save NIS 30 billion over 10 years. The plan was supposed to be acceptable to the treasury, approved by the National Security Council and submitted to the cabinet in November 2007 - but it was never submitted. In early May, Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi promised to submit within four months a consensual plan to raise the IDF retirement age. After all, there is no reason why an economist in the Defense Ministry's Kirya compound in Tel Aviv should retire on a budget-funded pension at 42. He can continue working until 67, like every other economist. But the four months have passed, and Ashkenazi hasn't brought any plan to the cabinet.
The IDF and Defense Ministry are turning us into a laughingstock. The rules of proper administration and budgetary discipline do not apply to them. They take the whipped cream and cherry from the public pie and leave the worst parts for social affairs and welfare. Instead of a country with an army, we have an army with a country.
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