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It is true the government has endorsed treasury proposals to cut NIS 4 billion from the 2004 defense budget. It is true the defense establishment is stunned by a cut of more than 10 percent in its shekel budget to NIS 32.5, and true also that with the NIS 3 billion cut from the defense budget a year ago, we will have perhaps the largest ever two-year cut (about 20 percent) in the defense budget.

But all this is a long way from the military refusing to accept a government decision. That is the meaning of the army's decision - with the acquiescence of Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz - not to prepare a work plan for 2004 based on the draft budget. This is the second year running that the army has taken improper action for a democratic country.

On the eve of the 2003 budget approval, the security establishment presented the Knesset with an alternative budget proposal, with figures completely different from those the government mandated. Ultimately, the army fell into line and translated the cuts into a significant reduction in the order of battle, especially in the number of armored divisions in the context of the Kela five-year plan.

However, the problem is not just the army's improper behavior. The Knesset defense budget committee, headed by MK Uri Ariel, is cooperating with an unprecedented attempt by the army to sway the government and force it to back off from its own decision on the eve of approving the national budget. Last Thursday, the committee decided not to authorize the defense draft budget.

This is the second time in recent months that the committee chair has exploited his position and halted authorization of the defense budget. The first time he did so to prevent additional allocations for the construction of the separation fence. At that time, his actions were compatible with his ideological views. This time the move appears to have been coordinated with the army's position.

The official explanation why the defense draft budget has not been authorized is amazing on its own. The chair of the committee maintains that he knows from his own sources that the prime minister is planning to increase the defense budget by NIS 2-2.5 billion, but this addition will be provided next month, after the approval of the state budget.

Consequently, the committee decided that most of its members agree with the army position that wants Ariel Sharon to increase the budget before the approval of the national budget. That is a volatile decision. The committee members know that an increase in the defense budget now would lead to a rupture in the budget, forcing it to be reopened, and would in fact prevent its approval - raising the risk of a coalition crisis.

The army's top brass has proudly noted the committee's approach. Some view it as the result of the intensive meetings the heads of the security establishment held with some of committee members in an effort to convince them to adopt the army's position in the dispute with the treasury and the government.

An example of behavior opposed to that of the committee - namely a professional ability to criticize army policy and offer alternatives - was recently demonstrated by a number of professional experts. Two days before the decision by the Knesset committee on the defense budget, a team of experts headed by the former commander of the air force, Eitan Ben-Eliyahu, presented the Herzliya conference with a paper that discusses the defense budget and the building of the army's strength.

The importance of the paper lies in the fact that although the team that prepared it included six retired generals, it did not accept the army's position and recommended cutting the defense budget by NIS 5.1 billion in 2004, and increasing the cuts in the number of tanks (by 10 percent), missile boats (15 percent) and assault helicopters (20 percent).

The member of another team of the Herzliya conference, former treasury accountant general Nir Gilad, said within the army is a defense industry, construction centers and computer systems that employ thousands of people - a wasteful system, rich in resources, that does not produce for export. Even more seriously, it threatens to undermine the civilian military industries.

In an opinion published this week, Colonel (res.) Dr. Shmuel Gordon, a lecturer in strategic studies at the Hebrew University, suggests using the budget crisis to reorganize the General Staff. Among his recommendations are making the administration of the coordinator of activities in the territories subordinate to the Central Command, and merging the telecommunications, technology and logistics departments with Ground Forces Command.

This, in addition to the transfer of the Home Front command to the defense ministry and the closing of one of the regional commands, would do away with five brigadier generals' jobs. The economic crisis forcing the security establishment to cut its budget, is an opportunity to close down unnecessary departments and get rid of budget-guzzling infrastructures.

The money saved could be used to boost the development of smart weaponry, satellites, and control and command systems. The alliance between politicians and retired generals on one hand and the army's top brass on the other, is undermining a rare opportunity to strengthen the IDF's deterrence, increasing its effectiveness, and saving money.