IDF Playing a Dangerous Game in Funding Standoff

Last summer's social protests delayed the IDF's multiyear program by a year, and sparked a long-winded debate about this year's defense budget.

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The Israel Defense Forces has insisted in recent weeks that it is facing unprecedented budgetary constraints, and has even threatened to freeze funding for missile defense systems. But unlike previous years, when such pressure could translate into more funding, the IDF is now unable to convince the government or the public that it has a case.

Last summer's social protests delayed the IDF's multiyear program by a year, and sparked a long-winded debate about this year's defense budget. Even though the government reversed its decision to cut NIS 3 billion from the defense budget in order to pay for reforms recommended by the Trajtenberg Committee - to alleviate financial pressures on the public - the army is experiencing a shortfall between its needs and expectations, and the resources it has available.

A battery of Iron Dome missiles by Sderot: The physical damage caused by strikes isn’t as bad as the disruption of routine, say experts.Credit: Eliyahu Herskhowitz

Officers at the General Staff describe a situation of uncertainty and stasis, where relatively minor budgetary considerations prevent long-term decision making, resulting in a hand-to-mouth approach. April has been marked as a cutoff point: after that, the army says it will stop all training of its units.

During the past two weeks, the IDF has taken the fight to the media. A day barely goes by without a headline about an essential project being cut: grounding of some units in the air force; stopping training; freezing funding for essential projects - from the Merkava tank to missile defense systems.

Deputy Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Yair Naveh told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee last week that "even after deep cuts in the IDF, we are missing NIS 3 billion. We are now in crisis and it must be said. The IDF has no orderly budget for 2012. The IDF is simply moving from one day to the next."

The Finance Ministry's response to the statements of the IDF brass in the media: the army is simply refusing to play by the rules of the game of a democracy. In practice, treasury sources say, the IDF received more money compared to last year, and the leaks about canceling programs and training are an attempt at scaremongering.

A resolution is not expected soon. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is not commenting. Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who offered support in principle to the position of the army and for temporarily increasing expenditures to meet both the Trajtenberg proposals and the IDF demands, has kept a low profile in recent weeks.

Israel's missile defense systems, meanwhile, have larger ramifications. There is no word on what the freezing of procurement of the Iron Dome (short-range ) batteries, and freezing funding for the development of Magic Wand (medium-range) and Arrow Mark III (long-range ), would mean to a central partner in these projects: the United States.

A year ago, President Barack Obama and Congress approved the transfer of $205 million to Israel, on top of the annual $3 billion in military aid, in order to contribute to the rushed acquisition of four batteries of the Iron Dome system to defend the Negev against short-range missiles.

The agreements with the U.S. had Israel commit to its own funding for acquiring the batteries, and also in investing money for the development of the two other projects. Now the defense establishment is saying that it cannot meet the agreement.

Those who follow the defense relationship between Israel and the U.S. are troubled by this turn of events. Israel is simply not in a position to announce such a move unilaterally, especially at a time when it is dependent on U.S. defense aid so much.

It is simply not possible to convince the U.S. President and Congress to increase assistance at a time of serious economic crisis in the United States, and then turn around several months later and show contempt for the American support and freeze Israel's own contribution to the project because of a domestic disagreement.



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