"The Israeli reality requires a considerable reduction in the defense budget and the redirecting of resources to contend with economic and social-welfare problems that have a crucial effect on the strength and stamina of the State of Israel."
This is not a statement from the finance minister. It was written by a team of experts who prepared a working paper for the Herzliya conference. Blunt words indeed. However, a reading of the document submitted to participants of the conference shows that contrary to this unequivocal statement, the team failed to recommend any real cuts in the defense budget.
It actually adopted a conservative position that basically supports army demands, while trying to point to budget sources that can be directed to security, so that in the next five years, the Israel Defense Forces will receive more or less the budget it is asking for.
While the finance ministry has proposed that a defense budget of NIS 34.5 billion, the IDF is asking for NIS 36.5 billion. The work team, headed by Brig. Gen. (res.) Eitan Ben-Eliyahu, proposed a budget of NIS 35-35.5 billion a year for five years. That is scarcely "a considerable reduction in the defense budget," as the team declared in the paper it prepared.
The conservative approach taken by the members of the team on the subject of the defense budget should come as no surprise. One cannot expect experts, all of whom are either former or current senior army or security establishment officers, to recommend an innovative approach that would clash with the army. And that is exactly the main problem of the Herzliya conference.
Its success in becoming the place where the prime minister and his minister reveal their political and diplomatic thoughts cannot hide the fact that the content of the studies and lectures on defense and security given at the conference represents the heart of security establishment consensus. The only point of departure for the discussions and position papers was that of the security establishment.
So, although Ben-Eliyahu's team underscored the geo-strategic changes that have occurred in the region as well as the significant reduction in the threats facing Israel, its members still hesitate to deviate from the conservative view espoused by the army that holds that despite all this, a significant cut in the defense budget is out of the question.
The defense minister declares in the Knesset that "the defense budget [...] represents the potential to dismantle Israel's defense force." The chief of staff has determined that "training exercises have been seriously undermined, and even training flights have been stopped [...] there is a serious undermining of the reserves and the entire matter has been managed like a marketplace for the past two years." And the Herzliya conference working team falls right into line.
True, when analyzing the threats, they arrive at the conclusion that "a significant window of opportunity has been created and in general it may be stated that the likelihood of these scenarios [of a clash of armies on the border] is definitely low." But immediately afterward, they explain why the budget must not be significantly cut.
"However, in consideration of the geopolitical nature of the Middle East, the need to always maintain deterrence and to be ready for any change in situation [...] all require that we maintain our strength." An analysis of the expected threats, as conducted by the Ben-Eliyahu team, shows that Israel's situation is not all that bad.
The eastern front no longer exists, "there is no danger of an attack from Syria," a threat from weapons of mass destruction has weakened. In fact, there are two main threats - terrorism and potentially, ballistic missiles that sometime in the future might also be nuclear.
The problem is, in the face of these threats, the IDF's thousands of tanks, assault helicopters, planes and missile boats are no good. The IDF is too large an army, it is prepared to deal with threats that have disappeared, and it is investing billions in equipment and planning for scenarios with a minimal chance of happening.
The result is a gigantic budget, a considerable portion of which is used to maintain superfluous equipment and manpower. The working team was aware of this when it determined, "the IDF has maintained itself for years in a situation in which the budget does not properly support the scope of the order of battle." The team's conclusion is correct.
"A reduction in the order of battle is needed [...] in order to assure the existence of a modern, powerful army." The team even went one step further when it recommended the depth of the reduction in the order of battle - "10 percent of the number of tanks, 15 percent the number of missile boats, 5 percent the number of fighter jets (the older models) and 20 percent the number of assault helicopters."
This is clearly an important recommendation, but it is not enough. An analysis of the expected developments as carried out by the team requires a far deeper cut. The proof is that even the seemingly impressive cutback that they proposed cannot bring about a real cutback in the defense budget.
The obvious conclusion is that the matter of planning the army's manpower and formulation of the budget should not be left in the hands of the army. Like in all democratic countries, there should be external control and supervision of the security establishment. No army can be expected to volunteer to significantly cut its size and budget.
If the conditions are ripe, as the Ben-Eliyahu team's paper shows, the government and the Knesset must decide to move accordingly. The IDF for its part has in fact started the process of cutting back, but lacking support from the politicians to take necessary and reasonable security risks, it is doing so slowly and on a small scale.
Knesset members and ministers would be well advised to read Ben-Eliyahu's working paper. It is only seven pages long, and it may provide them with food for thought on the most crucial and most expensive subject on our agenda.
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