Likely Freeze in Israel's Defense Budget Is a Victory for Protesters

Netanyahu and Barak are close to an agreement to delay implementation of the IDF's multiyear program and leave the existing budget unchanged for the coming year.

Leaders of the tent protests could chalk up another victory in addition to the establishment of the Trajtenberg Committee: a freeze of the defense budget.

In recent months, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak have both said repeatedly that the upheavals in the Arab world necessitate an increase in the Israel Defense Forces' budget. But the protests have changed their minds.

Housing protest - Emil Salman
Emil Salman

The defense establishment's ambitious programs for the next five years, which relied on the assumption that the budget would increase because of the Arab Spring, will apparently be delayed by at least a year: Netanyahu and Barak are close to an agreement to delay implementation of the IDF's multiyear program and leave the existing budget unchanged for the coming year.

The General Staff hopes that will be the end of it, but a great deal still depends on other fronts - from the protests on Tel Aviv's Rothschild Boulevard to the impact of the global financial crisis.

Barak believes the army will have to focus for the coming year on what he deems the top priorities: continuing training exercises (something the defense establishment has approached with near fanatic zeal ever since the Second Lebanon War of 2006, when poorly trained troops were sent into the field ), limited procurement of advanced munitions, cyber warfare, and developing missile interception systems.

The latter, which the IDF top brass had dismissed in previous years as "not our problem," was warmly embraced this year by the General Staff.

The success of the Iron Dome interception system during April's escalation of hostilities with Hamas in the Gaza Strip decided the argument in favor of those who supported its procurement: Not only did Iron Dome intercept rockets, but at least for the time being, its success has obviated the need for offensive operations - which cost far more than the interception missiles do.

New procurement is also being delayed by external factors. One of the biggest expenditures in the budget is the acquisition of the future air force fighter, the F-35. Originally, the air force was to have received its first squadron by 2016. But production delays in the United States have pushed the timetable back by two years.

Nonetheless, the Netanyahu-Barak compromise is problematic. The IDF prides itself on having managed to stick to the budget over the past four years, something it often didn't do previously. But inability to plan for the long term undermines the army's effectiveness and strength - and also results in waste.

The tent protests could have been a great opportunity for a renewed and serious discussion of Israel's defense needs and the assets allocated to them.

There is a long list of issues - from the ridiculously early retirement age of those with rear-echelon jobs (which was only partially fixed ) to the refusal to shorten mandatory service for certain soldiers - that are long overdue for reevaluation.

But right now, this seems unlikely to happen. And if there is a security-related escalation in the coming year, the debate will die down, and the defense establishment will once again be given at least part of the budgetary increase it had expected to receive this year.