Does Netanyahu Fear Iran Enough to Save IAF?

If PM was serious about Iran, he would have put presidential wheeling and dealing aside and fought the army's decision to cancel pilot training.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Two Israel Air Force pilots next to an F-15 fighter jet.
Two Israel Air Force pilots next to an F-15 fighter jet.Credit: Daniel Bar-On
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Last Thursday, the Israel Air Force texted all its squadron commanders and reserve pilots. The message indicated that all planned training flights will be canceled due to budgetary restrictions. A week previously, battalion commanders in the ground forces received similar messages.

The degree of preparedness of ground forces is not an exact science. Despite recommendations that were formulated after the Second Lebanon War in 2006, the Israel Defense Forces has refrained from establishing strict and binding criteria.

Readiness in the air force is a different matter. A reserve pilot who doesn’t train for a few weeks loses his authorization to participate in some missions. If this whole issue is spin that is part of the ongoing struggle over the defense budget – as many argue – then the defense minister, chief of staff and the air force commander are taking a huge gamble.

There is no one who should be more concerned with the air force’s readiness than Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, for whom the development and planning of a military option against Iran was at the top of his agenda for the last five years.

And what was Netanyahu up to as the air force was informing its pilots that training was canceled? Thanks to political affairs reporters, we now know that Netanyahu was mainly preoccupied with a last-minute effort to promote the candidacy of an 85-year-old Jew, who is not even an Israeli citizen, as the country’s next president.

Only on Wednesday did the Prime Minister’s Office instruct Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and Finance Minister Yair Lapid to desist from their public squabbling and to settle the dispute by direct negotiations. The Locker Committee, set up to investigate the defense budget, convened the next day for its first session, rather than a few months earlier. The committee’s work is no longer relevant in view of the defense establishment’s demand for a 2-billion shekel ($575.6 million) increment to its current budget. It’s doubtful whether recommendations will be made in time to affect the 2015 budget, in which Lapid plans to block any increases.

Ya’alon’s campaign to receive an immediate budget boost began in a threat-filled appearance before the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. For over three weeks, Netanyahu did not convene even a single meeting of the cabinet – the body that is supposed to discuss the issue. This crisis is also a result of a leadership vacuum, in which the prime minister is both absent and present in the process of decision making, allowing cabinet ministers to attack each other.

Someone who cannot display such equanimity is the chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz. Months away from the end of his term, he appears concerned that all his work is going down the drain. Credit for the quiet enjoyed by Israel’s citizens, despite the turmoil in the Arab world, is due to Gantz as much as it is to Netanyahu. The IDF consistently operates far beyond our borders, without committing errors that could lead to escalation.

A recent meeting of the General Staff desperately searched for further targets for expense cutting, discussing options as varied as canceling vacations and studies for officers to the supply of toilet paper. The army is concerned by recent reports of a sharp decline in the motivation of standing army officers to serve.

Some explanation for how the IDF got into this situation include the sharp rise in pension payments; enormous expenses at the rehabilitation division of the Defense Ministry; great waste in many units; and lack of tight supervision.

Lest the army repeat mistakes made in the Lebanon war, the state gave it an unprecedented period of grace between 2007 and 2013, with ample budgets. A major contributor was the preparations for a potential attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert may have hit the mark when he claimed that 11 billion shekels was wasted over two years. Any mention of Iran to Netanyahu resulted in automatic approval of budgets.

At this late stage, there are a few options available. One suggestion is to increase flexibility in retirement, letting officers retire earlier with a leaving bonus instead of an expensive bridging pension. Other suggestions include preparing longer-term budgets and organizational changes in the General Staff, in order to reduce the number of its personnel. Passing some jobs to civilian agencies is another solution being investigated.

An Israel Air Force F-15 taking off.Credit: Daniel Bar-On

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