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When an Army Cries Wolf

Top defense officials will have difficulty persuading the public that the threats really are real.

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On Tuesday, Chief of Staff Benny Gantz appeared again before the Knesset Foreign and Defense Affairs Committee meeting.

Much of the committee's session was spent on a stormy disagreement over the defense budget. In essence, Gantz said that the Israel Defense Forces has done everything in its power to "close the budget gap" that opened this year. But, having no alternative budget sources - it even had to halt training exercises.

And the lieutenant-general had another, more fundamental complaint: For three years now the government hasn't approved the IDF's multi-year plans. In the absence of a long-term program, the IDF has to improvise solutions on the spot, notably the stopping of training. This is practically the only flexible component in the budget, so when it materializes that defense expenditure is larger than projected, training is the victim.

Anyone who has spoken with IDF officers recently without the IDF spokesman’s mediation comes away with the impression that this time, the crisis in the IDF is real. Particularly harsh instructions were issued by General Command, obligating units to various strange maneuvers in order to achieve the missions entrusted in them.

But the army’s difficulty is that tricks have been part of previous rounds of budget battles, even when it had other sources to cut at its disposal. After several years of false alarms, the defense apparatus is now finding it hard to persuade the government that this time the wolf has really come to prey on the herd.

What does the IDF want to achieve now? Almost 2 billion shekels for now (and it has a creative accounting system through which it reached that sum), and at least twice as much next year.

A year ago Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon acceded to Finance Minister Yair Lapid’s suggestion to crop over 3 billion shekels from the defense budget. Even though the Defense Ministry got the money back five months later, senior IDF officers felt that the treasury set up them and the defense minister, who was still relatively fresh in the post and was accused of naivety. In recent months Ya’alon has discovered that the treasury does in fact have money at its disposal to transfer to other ministries. Now he and Gantz are trying to set their position at the front of the line, with an eye toward the 2015 budget.

Meanwhile, outside the perfect storm is raging, in which all the elements are acting against the defense establishment: Social needs clearly come before defense in the public’s list of priorities, the citizenry is not impressed by the generals’ threats, the finance minister has independent political clout and is less dependent on the prime minister, and even the Iranian threat has lost its immediate influence on Benjamin Netanyahu.

For years the defense establishment has not made any real investment in curbing its expenses, because it knew that the money would be found eventually, in the form of special increments that the government will approve in the second half of every year. Now even Gantz, a respected and admired chief of staff, is finding it difficult to persuade the ministers and the public that the real problems – the units’ fighting capabilities and fear of lowering manpower standards in the IDF – come before the education system or hospitals.

A week after returning from Japan, Netanyahu hasn’t even convened a cabinet meeting yet to decide on the issue. Meanwhile the Locker committee, which Netanyahu appointed to discuss the long-term defense budget, has yet to convene, so its conclusions will not affect next year’s budget.

In the absence of a practical debate, the issue is spilling over into minor issues, such as MK Ofer Bar-Lev’s (Labor) self-inflicted suspension from Foreign and Defense Affairs subcommittee meetings until the end of the Knesset’s summer session, after he foolishly leaked an unclassified document from a closed-doors session. Such issues should really be the concern of the Knesset Ethics Committee, but Bar-Lev and committee chairman Ze’ev Elkin worked out a quick solution.

How is this episode more important than the real problem the defense budget finds itself in? It doesn’t. But for now the voice of opposition to the defense establishment has gone quiet. It’s true that Bar-Lev can mainly accuse only himself, but Elkin, who was appointed only last week in a convoluted political deal and anyway doesn’t appear to have gone out of his way to supervise the defense establishment, should have been extra careful about cooperating with Ya’alon’s attack.

Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon, left, and IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz. Credit: ELiyahu Hershkowitz

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