The treasury leader didn't pussyfoot. He came straight out, guns blazing, in a direct frontal attack. And this is what he said.
The army should fire thousands of its career soldiers, he said, and the Defense Ministry should send no less than a quarter of its staff packing. The army is hiding information from us. It promised to submit an efficiency plan to the government and didn't. There are vast areas of waste in the Mossad and Shin Bet, he said.
Grist to the mill of Israel's taxpayers, all that: the people want the sense that the treasury clerks can do more than slash budgets and cut stipends for the old and disabled, that they can do more than shut down day-care centers. They can also take up arms against the biggest pork barrel in the land, the Defense Ministry budget, which swelled to an astonishing NIS 51.3 billion this year.
The message was all the more important because of the growing suspicion among the public that the treasury has teeth mainly when it confronts the old, the sick, the jobless, but turns into jelly when facing the powerful vested interests with tentacles deep in the country's power structures.
And here our treasury official feared not to attack the strongest lobby in the land! He dared take aim at the sacred cow nursing tens of thousands of some of the most firmly established people in Israel! Oh, one thing though - in honor of what occasion did the high-ranking public servant speak out? Was it preparing the groundwork ahead of preparing the 2009 budget, or before taking the battle before the cabinet and Knesset perchance?
Not exactly. In fact, quite the opposite. It was a farewell interview. He is leaving the treasury, en route to a better job at a government company. He's going to be the chief financial officer of the Israel Electric Corporation.
Yes, that IEC, the one financed by taxpayer money and your electricity bills, the one that the treasury has been striving in vain to reform for 20 years, the one whose managers spend most of their time fighting the treasury and other regulators trying to create competition in electricity provision.
It's time for a dip into the archive - wait, you know what, let's go straight to Google News, which can trawl most newspaper archives in Israel. Let's type in (in Hebrew) "Harel Belinda, need to cut, thousands of career soldiers, defense establishment, hiding information" and now let's hit Enter and here we go!
"Your search - Harel Belinda, need to cut, thousands of career soldiers, defense establishment, hiding information - did not match any documents." It turns out this was the first time that deputy budget director Belinda had used this particular toxic combination of phrases in a press interview.
We try a rather milder combination and do find interviews, but how disappointing - we learn that his parting interview was the first time that Belinda discussed the defense system so frankly. He didn't speak with the press much and when he did, he was cagey.
When did Belinda decide to start beating the tom-toms of war against the defense establishment? When did he decide to tell the taxpayers that all the headlines about efficiency measures in the military are lies, and that the army had and has no intentions of doing anything of the sort?
Naturally, the day after. He's moved on, to the Electric Corporation, and is leaving the job of taking on the army to his successor.
Now for a moment of proper disclosure. Harel Belinda was a stellar treasury officer. That was my impression two years ago, when he deigned to meet with me for a background chat on the defense budget. Smart, pleasant, decent, knew the details, in short, just like most of the Young Turks at the treasury. Yet that meeting left me dissatisfied: between the lines lurked a message: "We know that defense is squandering billions, that the system is bloated, that too many of its projects are pure megalomania, but we're helpless. That's how it is, the army is stronger than the treasury.
When the treasury takes on old-age allowances, it marks the target, takes aim, and conquers. But when addressing the public's biggest expenditure of them all (aside from interest payments on the national debt...) the treasury Turks capitulate, from the top of the budget department to the accountant-general of the Defense Ministry himself, who's been browbeaten into subservience.
The defense system is a past master at lobbying and spin, at trapping the nation's leaders in the corner. How? Easy: its lobbyists, ex-generals mostly, have firm footholds in every major office where decisions are made.
Study the development of the defense budget over the last 30 years and you will find no correlation whatsoever between threats to the country and budget growth. If anything the correlation seems to be reversed. The biggest budget cut was five years ago, as the second intifada raged and soldiers died in droves because of inadequate equipment.
Why was the defense budget cut back then? Because it had to be. Israel was teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. Benefits for all, from the old to the sick, were savaged, and the sacred cow had to forgo some clover, too.
Now look at the chart. It shows the worst problem of all: in 20 years the cash outlay of the Israeli taxpayer on financing pensions for defense-establishment pensioners has risen fivefold.
What other budget item has risen fivefold in that time? Welfare? Health-care spending? Hah.
"Social issues" have become the darling of the agenda among elected representatives and the press too in recent years. Writers and legislators vie in proposing the greatest spending increases for welfare and health care. Which should be done, to be sure, but where's the money to come from? Ask all those loudly promoting "social issues" and they fall silent, mainly because the vast pork barrels are protected by labor unions with huge clout, and nobody wants to take them on.
Last year the treasury named a new Budget Department director, a supremely talented young man named Ran Belinkov, whose most noteworthy characteristic is assertiveness. This is not a man of compromise, but a man of war.
Belligerence is not the ticket in complex systems like the treasury, or the state budget, where everything depends on building delicate coalitions. But in the case of the defense establishment, it's clear that the usual political methods have achieved nothing whatsoever. Apparently new methods are required and perhaps Belinkov will be the man to deliver. If he manages to force through true efficiency measures in the military, then he'll be the first budget director in years to truly make his mark on the economy.
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