ANALYSIS / Pretend Budget Compromises Have Politicians Laughing at Our Expense

A real finance minister would demand a genuine budget reduction - meaning a cut of several billions from the Defense Ministry and IDF.

The defense budget was cut last week. The ground shook and sent the commentators celebrating the unprecedented, astonishing success.

So let's make it very clear: No cut took place. Not even an allegory of a cut. All that happened was that the defense establishment's demands were not fully met. Defense officials demanded an extra NIS 6.8 billion over two years, but will "only" get NIS 4.1 billion. In other words, what we have is NIS 2.7 billion less than what was demanded. That's not a cut.

But even this modest NIS 2.7 billion reduction won't be carried out. Even as we speak, an agreement is being hammered out between Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to have that tiny reduction reimbursed in full. The only question is when it will be returned, and how quickly. The agreement may even have been signed by Friday morning.

This is because each player in this charade wants to get something for himself. Netanyahu wants to look like an assertive leader who can make the cuts and call the shots. Barak wants to cast himself as someone who cares about society and welfare.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak

And Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz wants to improve his image and show everyone that he overpowered Barak. So all three were pleased on Friday, chuckling away at our expense.

This is not the first time this stunt has been pulled. The same thing happened in the budget of 2009, when, during the world economic crisis, NIS 1.5 billion was cut from the defense budget.

But Netanyahu promised Barak to return the sum by 2011. In fact, however, the prime minister hurried up and returned it in 2010. So not only wasn't there a cut, the defense budget actually grew, amid the economic crisis.

What's more, it turns out that in recent years the shekel section of the defense budget would grow by between NIS 2 billion and NIS 3 billion compared with the original planning. How does that miracle take place? How is a budget planned for X end up as X plus 3 billion?

Well, throughout the year, the defense minister comes to the prime minister with all kinds of fairy tales about operations and preparedness, and the prime minister (who needs the defense minister's political support ) throws him a few billion.

The deal is sealed in the innermost rooms, without anyone the wiser.

There's no effective monitoring of the defense establishment. Not by the government, not by the Knesset, and not by the Finance Ministry.

The accountant general at the treasury, Shuki Oren, says as much: "It's difficult to impossible to monitor the defense budget ... the defense establishment does all it can to prevent accurate monitoring."

Oren has some harrowing examples of how the army squanders funds, how old-fashioned and opaque its purchase processes are. "The defense establishment won't abide by the law. They live in a country of their own," the accountant general says.

If we had a real finance minister, he would have demanded a genuine budget reduction, which would mean not a shekel of increase, but a cut of several billions of the fat at the Defense Ministry and the Israel Defense Forces. After all, this is a budget of NIS 55 billion that grew by 24 percent (! ) over that past five years.

But you count your chickens only after the eggs have hatched. So we'll have to wait for two more years, when the Finance Ministry people release another document filled with moaning about how the Defense Ministry fooled them once again and expanded its budget after a celebrated "cut."