Netanyahu Postpones Meeting on Locker Army Reforms Until After Budget Talks

‘By all indications, the Locker report is dead and buried,’ one politician says. Even Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon is keeping calm; he knows he’ll get more money.

Amos Harel
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IDF soldiers deploy near Hebron, June 13, 2014.Credit: AP
Amos Harel

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has decided that the 2016 defense budget will total 56 billion shekels ($14.8 billion). But while that’s less than defense officials wanted, they aren’t worried. Not only are they certain more money will arrive later, but even more importantly, the Locker committee on reforming the defense budget will be shelved.

Senior defense officials expect additions over the year to raise the 2016 defense budget above 60 billion shekels.

Their bigger victory, however, is a deal Netanyahu reached with the Finance Ministry: The diplomatic-security cabinet will discuss the Locker report only in another two or three months, as part of a briefing by the National Security Council. This means the report has effectively been given a bureaucratic burial.

The Locker committee recommended a 59-billion-shekel defense budget. No explanation for this figure was given, but it’s about midway between what the Defense Ministry wanted and what the treasury proposed.

That was virtually the only recommendation in the report that the defense establishment didn’t oppose. All the others — from reducing pensions for noncombat officers to firing thousands of career officers to shortening compulsory military service for men to two years — were lambasted by Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot and many other senior officers.

In discussions on the defense budget this week, Ya’alon initially demanded 64 billion shekels and then went down to 62 billion. When Netanyahu decided to cap it at 56 billion, Ya’alon sent a letter of protest.

Still, his protest has been far more restrained than that of other ministers whose budgetary demands aren’t being met, or than his protest over the Locker report ever was. The reason is clear: He expects the real figure to be much higher.

The same is expected to happen this year. Officially, the 2015 defense budget is 57 billion shekels, but actually it will approach 62 billion thanks to various accounting tricks. For instance, it received an extra 2 billion shekels from last year’s budgetary reserve and another 2 billion as an advance on the annual U.S. military aid.

Immediately after the Locker report was published, it seemed a critical mass of ministers could be mobilized to force a thorough discussion of the document in the diplomatic-security cabinet. Several ministers, including Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Immigrant Absorption Minister Zeev Elkin, even publicly backed the recommendations.

But after the dust settled, it became clear that the defense establishment had vanquished its opponents. Under the agreement reached this week, the report won’t be discussed at all until the IDF submits its own multiyear plan to the diplomatic-security cabinet in another few months. At that point, the National Security Council will also be asked to brief the panel on the Locker recommendations.

The council complained that preparations for this briefing would consume three months of its time. But it might not even receive those three months because the discussion may be brought forward to October.

Netanyahu, who waited a full week before uttering even a halfhearted word of thanks to the embattled Locker committee, is apparently in no hurry to discuss its recommendations, much less adopt them.

Meanwhile, the report has disappeared entirely from the media. Committee members have given few interviews, and its chairman, Maj. Gen. (res.) Yohanan Locker, hasn’t spoken with the media at all, aside from one background briefing for journalists on the day the report was published. Thus the field has been left almost entirely to current and former IDF officers who oppose the recommendations.

Next week, Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies will hold a seminar on the report. The speakers will include Ya’alon and the head of the IDF’s manpower directorate, but only one Locker Committee representative — its secretary, Shuki Friedman.

“The final result of the battle over the defense budget is clear to anyone who has been following it closely,” one politician told Haaretz. “By all indications, the Locker report is dead and buried. By the time it arrives at the diplomatic-security cabinet for discussion, in a sanitized version brought by the NSC, its influence will have been neutralized. Meanwhile, the army will get more increases, as it does every year.”