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"You can't really suspect our defense establishment of having a hand in heating up the northern border in the last few days," the chairman of a leading Israeli bank told us this week. "But you also can't help wondering how it is that some military front always catches fire a moment before talks begin on the defense budget."

Until the tensions started escalating up north, the defense establishment seemed to be entering the budget talks in an uncharacteristically uncomfortable position. Tensions on the eastern front evaporated because of the United States's involvement in the region. The hudna is fragile, but it's there.

In fact, aside from that picture of Iran's Shihab-3 missile that pops up in the papers from time to time, the military has a problem how to frighten the people ahead of the budget talks.

The most frightening front of all, for the military leadership, isn't the front with Lebanon or Syria, apparently. It is the front with the treasury over the 2004 budget.

That is not only because the change in geopolitical circumstances reduced the existential threats to Israel. It is also because defense is where the really big money is.

Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu means to impose the biggest budget cuts in 20 years, in percentage terms. The government will have to reduce its expenditure by 3-5 percent to meet its own deficit target.

The two traditional main means for reducing the deficit - lowering "social" budgets, and raising taxes - can't do the job this time. Long-running protests practically preclude any more cuts to government subsidies, nor would raising taxes comply with Netanyahu's economic credo. Or that of most other economists here and around the world, either.

The defense budget is an alluring target, but it's the toughest of the lot. Most finance ministers have been burned when trying to touch it. The army is very well, and cleverly, organized regarding its finances. It has tremendous economic clout, it has the most powerful political connections, and mainly, it has a direct line to the prime minister and ministers, most of whom are ex-army officers.

You could find any number of examples of the defense establishment ignoring Finance Ministry directives and sometimes those of the prime minister himself, or the lack of supervision. But the problem is best shown through a simple fact - nobody outside the uppermost army echelons has a clue where the money's going. Nobody knows what career soldiers really make or how much their pensions will cost us.

Some of the most vociferous voices when it comes to economic and social affairs seem struck dumb when it comes to discussing wages in the defense establishment, whether it be the army, the Shin Bet or the Mossad. Eye-popping pensions for the minority shareholders suddenly become a no-go zone, because the defense of the realm is at stake, isn't it?

The truth that the defense establishment is trying to obfuscate is that the big money isn't going to the warriors. It's going to the headquarters, to the Home Front Command, and to air-conditioned offices. Less than a third of the army's wage costs goes to what the treasury calls the fighters and their support, and only 10-15 percent of the total goes to the people who actually are out there fighting, because most of Israel's fighting forces is made up of reserves and conscripts.

The defense establishment is quick to point out how the budget cuts will reduce equipment, armaments and operations. That's how things usually work. Instead of cutting away flab, they go right for the meat and bone, to show how they suffer.

Nobody mentions why some high-ranking noncom or colonel in the Home Front gets a salary and pension that are three to five times what a civil servant with the same skills would get. No, they point at the corps commanders in the field.

It is high time to open debate on the wages, pensions, tax exemptions and other perks handed to defense officials. It is high time to clearly distinguish between the army of warriors and the army of khaki-garbed pencil-pushers. It is high time to receive precise data on the financial cost of the two segments.

It is high time to check whether the size of the defense budget is based on the defense establishment's political clout, or whether it derives from genuine threats to Israel.

In other words, it's time to examine whether the army hasn't grown too big for Israel's economy to support.

It is high time for each and every mother in Israel to know where the money poured into defense goes. It is high time for taxpayers, and all those poverty-stricken people whose allowances have been savaged, to receive full disclosure about the army, which is supposed to be a lean, mean fighting machine, not a lumbering, obese black hole where budgets disappear.