The argument over Israel's defense is encouraging more transparency and a better understanding of the decision-making process in the country's upper political echelons.
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On Monday, Dan Harel, the director-general of the Defense Ministry, revealed the cost involved in financing the “special means” that are under the prime minister’s direct control: NIS 4.5 billion in the current year, which will be increased by another NIS 600 million next year. Harel said that this sum cannot be touched or cut back, as per a decision of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The camouflage of “special means” – one might guess that the term is code for means that are so important security-wise that Netanyahu must be totally responsible for them – has always been a main reason for concealing the intricate details of the budget and its portrayal as a locked box. But when the coffers are empty, the need for funds weakens the locks on the defense budget, and the public gets to see the political echelon’s priorities.
Netanyahu does not nourish only “special” things. Last week, Gili Cohen reported in these pages that the budget for the secret services – the Mossad and the Shin Bet – received a generous 10-percent supplement last year, for a total of NIS 6.63 billion. Their budget for this year has not been revealed yet, but throughout his terms as prime minister, Netanyahu has usually increased the budget of services subordinate to him every year, and in all probability is continuing with this policy.
The revelation of the figures earlier this week shows the prime minister’s defense priorities: Netanyahu is investing in strengthening intelligence and strategic deterrence, and in promoting national goals such as moving Israel Defense Forces bases to the Negev (the budget for that, too, is untouchable and will be receiving a generous addition next year). He ascribes less importance to the conventional needs of the long-standing army, and is using budget constraints to force it to streamline. In the premier's view, there is little chance that a ground war requiring a call-up of the reserves and deployment of large numbers of troops will break out.
The result is reflected in the numbers presented by the Defense Ministry director-general: The IDF budget will total NIS 26.05 billion, but next year will be reduced to NIS 22.4 billion. Even if the defense establishment is given a little extra funding when the arguments are over, which is to be expected, it will still be asked to show that it has cut costs, even partially.
The army hates to streamline and reduce expenses, and has always done so only when a budget cutback was forced upon it from above, by order of the prime minister, or from the side, due to public pressure. If there is no such pressure, the army often ends up supporting entire arrays that have become outdated. In that spirit, defense establishment officials lament the units that had to be dismantled last year because of financial constraints, and portray their closure as a great sacrifice.
A good look at the facts shows that this is nonsense. The units that were taken out of service used outdated weapons that should have been banned long ago. The air force let go of Squadron 160, which used Cobra jets from the 1970s, and Squadron 140, which used the first model of the F-16 fighter jet and was brought to Israel 34 years ago.
For its part, the ground forces closed down the 11th, 14th, 27th and 600th reserves brigades of the Armored Corps, which used Patton and Merkava I tanks. We can only hope that no one in the army thought of deploying those units – which should have been relegated to the IDF History Museum long ago – in an actual battle against a well-trained army with modern anti-tank weapons, like Hezbollah.
It is too bad that the army is incapable of streamlining and renewing itself on its own, and does so only too late and unwillingly. The cost-cutting process needs to continue.
In the meantime, however, the argument over the budget, with all its spins and counter-spins, is contributing to the tightening of civilian and public supervision of the defense establishment’s enormous spending.