For years, the most popular headline with the heads of Israel's defense establishment was "Shihab-3 missiles aimed at the heart of Tel Aviv." Every time the argument about the size of the defense budget arose, military correspondents would urgently be called to the Kirya in Tel Aviv, where the General Staff is headquartered. There, senior officers would tell the military correspondents, in the utmost secrecy, that Iran's nuclear plans were advancing and that their missiles already were capable of reaching Tel Aviv. The result would be massive headlines in the next day's newspapers reporting on missiles aimed directly at the heart of the country, and asserting that it was therefore possible to cut the defense budget when our lives were at stake.
But this year Defense Minister Ehud Barak had a problem. The government decided, contrary to his opinion, to cut the defense budget and also to institute some transparency and exert control over it. True, we are not talking about a big slash, just a small cut, and only to the addition given to the army. But Barak didn't like even this small cut, and he therefore decided to appear before the Knesset's Finance Committee and hint - a hint only as subtle as an elephant - that Israel could find itself in a situation in which it would be necessary to attack Iran alone, without help from others. He even mentioned a date - the decisive year of 2012. So who will now have the courage to cut the defense budget when next year we could face a war in which life and death hang in the balance?
The scare tactics used by the heads of the defense establishment aren't new. Once upon a time, the defense ministers would invoke Egypt, then they moved to Iraq's Saddam Hussein and the eastern front. But now all they have left is Ahmadinejad in Iran. The truth is that there is no great connection between the real threats and the size of the defense budget in this country.
The army always exaggerates the dangers, always demands more money, but the budget is determined at the end of the day by the political strength of the defense minister and not by any real threat.
It made no difference whether we won the war in 1967 or whether we suffered a huge defeat in 1973; in both cases the army's budget increased. It made no difference whether we signed a peace agreement with Egypt or Jordan; the budget grew. It made no difference whether for an entire decade the eastern front was paralyzed because of the war between Iran and Iraq; the budget expanded. It made no difference whether we went into Lebanon or withdrew; in both cases, the budget grew.
And when is the budget cut? That also happens without any connection to the threats around us. It was cut only when we found ourselves in dire economic straits. That happened in 1951 when the government of David Ben-Gurion didn't have money to buy wheat or fuel. It happened again in 1985 when the hyper-inflation crisis led the country almost to its last dollar.
Cabinet Minister Moshe Ya'alon, referring to Barak's hints about Iran, said the defense minister's decision to raise the subject on the agenda "was a cynical and irresponsible move that harms state security." But in addition to this lack of responsibility, Barak also excelled this week in another form of irresponsibility - in the economic sphere. He said the government must devote more resources to dealing with the social protest, but then he added immediately that the defense budget must be increased.
Altogether, another NIS 7 or 8 billion would be required every year "to respond to all the threats we are familiar with: Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Iran in the background." That is to say, both defense and welfare. No order of priorities. As if it is really possible to increase the deficit now without paying a heavy price in return.
After all, only this week the Finance Ministry published data that shows revenue from taxes was declining in the wake of the economic slowdown and losses on the stock market. So how is it possible to further increase expenditures? Has Barak not heard about the severe crisis facing Greece? In the last few years, Greece behaved exactly the way he is recommending now - heedlessly raising expenditures, increasing the deficit and taking loans - until it collapsed and had to change course abruptly. Today it is begging door-to-door, cutting 25 percent from the public sector, laying off 30,000 workers, deducting tens of percentages from public pensions, and raising taxes drastically. Does Barak really not understand that this also would be our fate if we were to listen to his advice?
So what is more serious? Barak's irresponsible remarks on the Iranian issue, or his irresponsible proposals in the economic sphere? You decide.
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