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Cabinet ministers will soon be exposed to a new term - "exclusive economic zone" - and a new mission placed before the IDF, and will be asked to approve its financing. Until now the navy has protected Israel's territorial waters, which extend 23 kilometers beyond the coastline. Following the successful exploration of the "Tamar" and "Leviathan" gas fields, the navy now has the added mission of defending off-shore drilling rigs, one of which is situated 150 kilometers from the coast, far beyond Israel's territorial waters. This is how the "exclusive economic zone" recently came to be defined - 28,000 square kilometers, larger than the area of the state.

Considering that the state's expected remuneration from gas drilling in the next three decades exceeds NIS 700 billion, and in light of the Israeli energy market's expected dependency on gas supplies, the importance of protecting gas drilling and production facilities is clear. The estimation is that a strike on a rig by a hostile party would inflict not only huge economic damage (a rig costs about NIS 3 billion and a day's operation about NIS 3 million ), but also cause international concerns to abandon joint gas exploration initiatives and harm contracts to export gas.

The rigs are far from the coast, and the ships that service them pass very close to Lebanon, provide a tempting target for groups such as Hezbollah, which, it should be recalled, managed to hit the INS Hanit corvette with an anti-ship missile during the Second Lebanon War. Syria, for example, has extremely accurate anti-ship missiles with a range of 300 kilometers. The far-flung rigs can also be a target for booby-trapped boats. The list of threats is long, and the navy says it cannot contend with all of them with its current fleet.

For this reason, what was defined for the navy a year and a half ago as the mission of defending Israel's "economic waters," has solidified into a defense plan that includes both developing a fighting strategy and equipping the navy with new seacraft suitable for the mission of protecting the rigs and production facilities. The navy wants to buy four more boats. At first the intention was to add four more Sa'ar 5-class corvettes (such as the INS Hanit ), but because of their high cost (about NIS 1.6 billion apiece ), it was decided to make do with a similarly-sized model that will fill the role of patrol boats, thereby significantly lowering the price (by some NIS 600 million per boat ). The operational requirements of the designated seacraft, dubbed the "Magen," were disseminated among the world's ship-building yards, and many offers were forthcoming.

Now, as expected, begins the real debate. The price of the new equipment comes to NIS 2.8 billion, and operating the new defense arrangement will cost about NIS 480 million a year. Common sense dictates that a sizable chunk of that sum should come from the enormous profits reaped by the companies producing the gas. But it's almost certain that this will not happen.

The treasury is demanding that the financing be taken from the defense budget. The army, of course, says it cannot free the resources from its budget, which it argues is already insufficient to cover its needs. The navy has prepared a plan that will allow the outlay to be spread over 15 years - that is, less that NIS 200 million a year. Now the government has to decide.

It's hard to believe that cabinet ministers who decided to increase the defense budget by NIS 4 billion this year will back the treasury, and so they will probably decide to tap the state budget to finance the project to protect Israel's "economic waters." The gas exploration concessionaires will continue to grow richer, and we'll pay to protect their facilities.