In most of the commentaries on the decision not to extend the chief of staff's term of office, it was stressed that one of Moshe Ya'alon's successes was his ability to maintain the strength of the IDF and even to forge ahead with his procurement plans, despite the "massive cuts" to the defense budget during his tenure.
While this is indeed a feather in Ya'alon's cap, it is a public relations accomplishment, not a professional one. Despite heartrending complaints from senior military officials each time the budget comes up for discussion about how dangerous the cuts are, the truth is that the defense budget has not been reduced at all during Ya'alon's term. In fact, it has not been cut in the last 15 years. It even grew, in real terms, almost every year.
The truth about the defense budget, which has been hidden from the eyes of the public and commentators, is very easy to uncover. Each year the Finance Ministry publishes on its Internet site the main clauses of the budget. Among the information available is a graph showing the development of the defense budget, which proves that there is not, and has not been, a reduction. (http://www.mof.gov.il/ budget2005/mainpage.htm).
Anyone wondering about the annual ritual of warnings from top brass against massive cuts to the defense budget will find the answer in a decision taken last week by the joint Knesset committee on the defense budget. After a short meeting, which was largely ignored by the media, the committee approved the defense budget for 2005: NIS 42 billion. Exactly the same as in 2004. The only novelty, which averted a repetition of the annual phenomenon of scare-mongering over damage to our security, was an agreement between the treasury and the army. The sides arrived at the meeting with a mutually acceptable budget proposal.
While the pre-arranged agreement averted the ugly haggling that has characterized recent years, it also highlighted the fact that the treasury made no attempt to implement a significant cut to the defense budget. Despite the fact that treasury officials are well aware of the negative implications on the economy and society of such massive defense expenditures, and their realizing that cutbacks could be made as a result of the positive strategic developments in our region, they prefer to acquiesce to the demands of the defense establishment.
Finance Ministry officials understood that they do not have the tools to oversee effectively the budgetary demands of the IDF. This year's discussions were an example of this inability. The IDF began with a demand for NIS 3.3 billion for implementing the disengagement plan. The treasury had no way of examining the figures behind this demand, but nonetheless claimed that it was inflated. In the end, the IDF made do with NIS 1.9 billion. Treasury officials are convinced that the IDF tried to get funds for other purposes approved via the disengagement clause, but are unable to prove it.
Relating to defense expenditures in the state budget, treasury officials write: "Israel's defense budget, as a proportion of GDP, is at least three times higher than in other Western countries, which are targets for Israeli exports and whose products compete with Israeli products." But instead of demanding a cut to this expenditure, they add, timidly, as if they were afraid of being accused of harming security: "That said, there is room to examine whether it is viable to maintain the current level of defense spending, or whether there is room for a significant reduction - given the geo-strategic changes in the region." That's all. A hint that it is possible and desirable to reduce the budget, but no more.
The treasury, therefore, has given up the ghost. Members of the Knesset defense budget committee do not make any pretense of overseeing the defense budget. The public is indifferent, the media ignores it, and the IDF can go on demanding, and receiving, huge budgets every year.
And that's not all. The defense budget approved by the Knesset is, in many cases, meaningless. Almost every year the IDF receives top-up funds and, by the end of the year, defense expenditures have grown by another few billion. It is almost certain that the 2005 defense budget will grow by the end of the year. The IDF can be trusted to find the pretext to demand an increase, and the prime minister or the Finance Committee will acquiesce. After all, nothing can be allowed to harm security.
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