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This time the neophyte sucker was Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon forced Mofaz to relinquish NIS 200 million from the defense budget. To salvage his reputation, Mofaz suddenly turned into a guardian of education, defining it as "one of the cornerstones of society." By keeping Mofaz in check, Sharon and Benjamin Netanyahu managed at last yesterday to win government approval for the budget cut plan. Still, all the upheavals, delays, threats and disgrace could have been prevented, had the prime minister been able to stand up to pressure.

The problem is that Sharon lacks a strategic vision: He doesn't plan for the long term. Everything is built for the short term, to put out the fires and to buckle under pressure. Since the military lobby is the most powerful, it managed to secure the largest budget supplement: NIS 1.8 billion (it was this addition that created the need to lop off a large sum from all the other ministry budgets).

Before the intifada, the defense budget stood at NIS 34 billion. But during 2001 and 2002, Sharon and then finance minister Silvan Shalom surrendered to the army's demands, and so the budget shot up to a pinnacle it hadn't reached in 10 years: NIS 39.5 billion in 2002. Was this steep rise warranted? Not really.

The Israel Defense Forces in fact fought in the territories, but this isn't warfare that gobbles up funds. It doesn't involve the loss of expensive planes and tanks. The IDF also saved considerable funds as a result of the withdrawal from Lebanon. What happened is that the IDF exploited Sharon's low threshold level and secured its exaggerated budget supplements - and the cost was cruel budget cuts in education and health, along with reductions in guaranteed income payments, and in child and senior citizen allowances.

In 2003 things changed. It was no longer possible to reduce allocations to civilian sectors, and so the army had to trim its spending. The defense budget was reduced to NIS 36.5 billion and this year it stands at NIS 34 billion, roughly the size it was before the intifada. The IDF also receives U.S. aid, which this year stood at $2.16 billion.

Every year, as soon as arguments about the budget heat up, the army whips out arguments to frighten the government. Last year it was Saddam Hussein, who (according to that great strategist Amos Gilad) was poised to fire chemical-laden missiles at Israel "when his back is pushed to the wall." Today, there is no Saddam, the Syrian army is weak and the Americans are deployed in the heart of the Arab world watching over Iran and threatening Syria. The web of threats has grown tawdry. So what remains? Shihab-3 missiles from Iran? Egypt's entry into the arena of threats?

A study sponsored by the Israel Democracy Institute, and written by a team headed by Prof. Avi Ben-Bassat, argues that the government should adopt an approach of "national security," instead of "military security." That is, Israel must consider socioeconomic stability a component of security, so that security is not just a military matter. Data compiled by the team establish that from 1996 through the present, Israel's annual defense budget has been $1 billion higher than the total of the defense budgets of the countries that border Israel (Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon).

Once we throw the improvement on the eastern front into the equation, it becomes clear that a window of opportunity has opened that calls for a deep reduction in allocations to the IDF, relating to various projects, service terms and more. Had such cuts been made, the painful reductions in health, education, social welfare allowances and transportation could have been avoided - and "national security" would have been enhanced.