Defense at the Expense of Society, Again

2007 was supposed to be an excellent budgetary year for social purposes, but will apparently be another exhausting year of debate between the army and treasury.

The 2007 state budget was brought before the Knesset yesterday. The NIS 295 billion budget is expected to solve the problems of security, education, poverty and socio-economic gaps. Bringing the budget before the Knesset signals the start of the season of applying pressures. Every group, party and MK will try to get a bigger slice of the pie over the next two months. Some will do this out of belief that they are serving the best interests of the nation. Some will do it out of utter cynicism - to "pay back" those who sent them to the Knesset.

But there is one special interest group that is above all others, and is treated differently than its peers. Hosted at Ehud Olmert's office Thursday, this group presented to attendees a new kind of nightmare scenario.

The scenario was presented by Idan Nehushtan, the incoming head of the Planning Directorate. Nehushtan initially explained to the prime minister how much money was needed for the army to maintain its necessary level of stockpiles, aircraft, tanks and training, and projects to strengthen the force. He then essentially passed the ball over to the prime minister's court, because if Olmert decides that it is possible to make do with less, he should precisely specify where the cuts should be made. In the number of a aircraft? In training? In R&D? The minute he gives the go-ahead, responsibility will pass from the chief of staff to the prime minister. He will be the one who will have to face the next commission of inquiry.

Dan Halutz even sent a letter to the prime minister and defense minister in which he pointed out that if the defense establishment did not receive the necessary additions to its budget, the Israel Defense Forces would be unable to deal with threats that the country faced. This is a tactic that constitutes an escalation in the usual threats employed by the army in pressuring the political echelon: If you will not meet all our demands, you won't be able to sleep quietly at night. This tactic forces the prime minister into an impossible situation: It transforms him into a super chief of staff in charge of Israel's defense, even though he has no control over actual implementation.

Indeed, this time the army's demands are huge; much more than what we have seen in previous years. To date, the army has received NIS 8.2 billion to replenish stockpiles depleted during the second Lebanon War. But on Thursday, the IDF demanded many more billions to improve the stockpiles' quality, train reservists, expedite projects that "without them we will not win," and prepare to meet the threats posed by Iran. If this is the case, what is the defense establishment doing with the NIS 46 billion made available to it every year - even before any of these supplements?

But those at the IDF are not impressed by criticism over the enormous waste in the army, and are demanding to broaden the basic defense budget by NIS 3.5 billion and receive an additional NIS 3 billion per year "over the baseline." Overall, this is an enormous addition of NIS 20 billion over the next three years.

Finance Minister Abraham Hirschson nearly choked when he heard the demand, but responded quietly, with a well-known political trick: "Every shekel that is added to the defense budget will have to be taken from another budget, and that will be very painful." The trick worked, and Defense Minister Amir Peretz was quick to respond: "There is no relation between missiles and the elderly."

But obviously there is a connection. There is only one piggy bank and one budget. The minute the army fired shells and missiles without heed, it should have been clear that the bill would not be late in coming. Even with the army demanding many more billions, it should be clear that this will come at a price for the budget's civilian segments: infrastructure, roads, education, welfare, allowances and professional training. Everything will be harmed. Because once the finance minister and prime minister announced there will be no tax hike and deficit increase, there is a clear foundation for the budget and the limits within which everyone will have to make do.

It would have been possible to manage the issue in an entirely different manner. Instead of only discussing additional budget funding demanded by the IDF, the chief of staff should have been asked to present an extensive streamlining program, the type that is possible only during a crisis.

It was necessary to demand that the defense establishment immediately raise the retirement age of permanent staff serving in the rear, cut the number of commands, limit the number of higher ranking officers, cancel missions abroad, and prepare a plan to save billions in spending on a fat and cumbersome army.

But none of this was done, and 2007 - which was supposed to be an excellent budgetary year featuring an impressive allotment of funds for social purposes, a shrinking of the socio-economic differences, and means to counter poverty - will be another exhausting year of debate between the army and treasury. Once again, we have returned to a situation in which the budget for infrastructure and society will fund the supplements for the IDF.