Finance officials will be coming to the cabinet debate on the defense budget today armed with a new weapon: a survey showing that nearly two-thirds of Israelis think the defense budget is too big.
Be that as it may, today the cabinet will be voting on a two-year budget proposal, for 2011-2012. Insiders say it should pass by a landslide, despite the utter failure by Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz and Defense Minister Ehud Barak to reach an agreement on the defense budget.
The national budget for 2011 will be NIS 345.1 billion, rising to NIS 358.6 billion in 2012 (both figures are in 2010 prices ).
Treasury officials and Eyal Gabai, director general of the Prime Minister's Office, spent yesterday trekking between the ministries to solve the last disputes ahead of today's vote. As for the defense budget, given the impasse between finance and defense officials, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is expected to hand down a decision.
The Finance Ministry thinks the defense budget should be reduced by NIS 1.4 billion in each of the next two years. Defense thinks it shouldn't. Finance retorts that if it isn't, other ministerial budgets, such as education and welfare, will need to be cut.
Finance has backers for its position, including ministers Uzi Landau, Benny Begin and Gideon Sa'ar, all of whom spoke at the cabinet meeting Sunday in favor of defense budget cuts.
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The battle over the budget is fiercer than ever this year, as defense and finance officials trade not only verbal blows, but dissenting figures. The discrepancies are not small: The Finance Ministry claims that the defense establishment has received far more than recommended by the Brodet Committee, while defense claims its budget has been exactly in line with the committee's recommendations.
In 2007 a commission headed by David Brodet handed down a series of recommendations to streamline the defense establishment, including by significantly raising the retirement age.
Finance officials will also be bringing an internal ministry document to today's meeting, claiming that in the years 2008 to 2010, the defense establishment received NIS 4.7 billion more than it should have under the Brodet budget guideline for 2010.
Also, the Finance Ministry claims that under Brodet, during the years 2008 to 2010, the defense establishment was supposed to cut NIS 3 billion in "flab" and to use that money to strengthen its force. That did not happen, say finance officials.
As for the survey, which the Finance Ministry commissioned from the Panels research institute and which was conducted this month, 31.5% of the public believes the defense budget is "much too high," while 28% thinks it's "a little higher than it should be." Only 26.8% of respondents think the defense budget is appropriate and 14.7% think it's too low.
Also, two-thirds of the public object to allowing 45-year non-combat soldiers to retire on full pensions. Only 4.8% said they strongly supported pensioning off non-combat soldiers at 45; 10.7% said they were somewhat in favor; and 18.7% said they were neutral.
Asked where the government should use money saved from defense, 71% chose "education and higher education" or "health care," while only 0.2% chose "employment."
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