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If Benjamin Ben-Eliezer wins the Labor Party's leadership race today, the Israeli government will finally have a full-time defense minister.

The scarecrow called a "part-time defense minister" was waved accusingly in the face of former prime minister Ehud Barak who abandoned the direct management of the defense establishment. His supporters would counter-argue that the arrangement saved overlapping in discussions with the defense minister that were preliminary to discussions with the prime minister and that, in Barak's case, quality compensated for quantity.

Barak's refusal of the defense portfolio in the government led by Ariel Sharon placed the prize in Ben-Eliezer's hands. But until now - a period of nine months - he has been only a part-time defense minister because his performance was determined by considerations surrounding his face-off in the Labor leadership race against Knesset Speaker Avraham Burg. This linkage between performance and the leadership contest affected the way he divided his attention among various issues and caused him to avoid (politically) costly confrontations with Chief of Staff Shaul Mofaz, and with the families of persons who had been kidnapped and taken to Lebanon, when these families opposed the promotion of senior Northern Command officers.

In other words, the separation of the defense portfolio from the prime ministership is in itself no guarantee that the country will have a full-time defense minister. Only on one issue - the budget - did this separation benefit the defense establishment. Sharon's desire to keep Labor in his government was one of the factors in Ben-Eliezer's great political achievement: rescuing the Israel Defense Forces from the full extent of the budget slash - to the tune of a billion shekels - that the Finance Ministry had planned for it. Thus, Ben-Eliezer repeated the success of former defense minister Yitzhak Mordechai, who got his way when then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu preferred a compromise to a clash, due to the balance of forces in the Likud.

If, before that decision, the major generals on the IDF's General Staff last Sunday looked like shell-shocked soldiers, the next day they had an amazing recovery: The ax marks had healed. The defense budget must be cut because it is bigger than that of any other ministry and, if it is not cut, it will be hard to extract obedience from the other ministers regarding their own budget-cutting.

On the other hand, the defense budget cannot be cut for at least three reasons: Ben-Eliezer, Mofaz and Netanyahu. Thus, a basically fictitious budget cut was invented - a cut that would not affect the allocations for the "Ebb and Flow" plan (combat in the territories) and the "Domino Effect" plan (preparations for the extension of the American war on terror into the Middle East). For these two budget items, the IDF had been promised an additional NIS 1.7 billion.

The budget cut - really only half a cut - will come from the additional billion shekels the IDF had hoped to receive in 2002 for other programs. A total of NIS 550 million will be cut - in a flexible "installment" plan and on condition - so that any deterioration of the security situation next year would lead to the cancellation of the budget cut.

In its full-blown version, the state budget allocates for defense spending NIS 41.7 billion, of which nearly NIS 10 billion (or $2.04 billion, a quarter of which is to be converted into shekels for local acquisitions) comes from American assistance. Other rigid budget items are pensions and rehabilitation (NIS 6 billion) and salaries (NIS 12.8 billion). Another NIS 1.08 billion, of which hundreds of millions of shekels are earmarked for the Shin Bet internal security service and Mossad, are in safekeeping with the Finance Ministry as a general reserve fund.

The sum of NIS 1.6 billion annually is allocated for the funding of reservist duty. A lot of money could be saved in this item - in fact, nearly the entire amount, except for the funds needed to recruit units for the territories - by the introduction of a "training-less year," an idea proposed twice by Yitzhak Rabin in the 1980s (after completion of Israel's withdrawal from the Sinai and following the evacuation from Lebanon to the border of the security zone). If ultra-Orthodox Jewish males are inducted for a period of (cheap) compulsory service in the IDF, the spending on career and reservist personnel would be reduced.

However, until the Messiah arrives, two factors appear to be coming to the rescue: Saddam Hussein and the salary of senior personnel. The Iraqi compensation fund for damages inflicted by Scud missiles during the Gulf War in 1991 - about $75 million - will be jointly controlled by the Finance and Defense ministries; thus, each ministry can claim ownership to the fund.

Monthly salaries for major generals are nearly NIS 40,000, for colonels approximately NIS 30,000 and for brigadier generals somewhere in the middle. Over the past four years, the salaries of senior officers have increased by between 14 percent (colonels) to 21 percent (major generals), as compared with 30-percent salary increases for senior executives in the civilian sector. The legal period of enforcement for the salary freeze for senior IDF officers that will include senior personnel in Mossad and the Shin Bet is so problematic that it seems to invite a petition to the High Court of Justice.

But even if NIS 10 million are saved in this area, the budget will still have to absorb the wasteful spending of NIS 2 million - the price of Mofaz's capricious decision to change the rank insignia of career personnel from metal to cloth, and then back again to metal.