Director of Israeli Defense Ministry Warns Lack of State Budget Hindering Military

Amir Eshel says failure to pass budget by end of year will make it difficult for the army and defense agencies to carry out strategic plans

Yaniv Kubovich
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An Israel Defense Forces tank near the border with Gaza, November 11, 2020.
An Israel Defense Forces tank near the border with Gaza, November 11, 2020.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz
Yaniv Kubovich

The director-general of Israel's Defense Ministry told reporters on Monday that if a state budget for 2021 is not passed by the end of the year, the military and other defense agencies will have difficulty carrying out strategically important plans.

"The budget issue is critical," Amir Eshel said. "Without a state budget for 2021, the defense system won't have the ability to plan long-term projects ... The way we are managing the national defense budget is not optimal, and does not permit long-term planning."

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According to Eshel, the political stalemate preventing a budget from being passed is delaying the military's acquisition of strategic equipment. "Being equipped with fighter jets, refueling planes, helicopters, advanced weaponry – this is a process that takes five-to-seven years, and currently there's no possibility to start it," he said, adding that equipment should have been purchased "yesterday."

Eshel emphasized the importance of equipment procurement for the air force, saying that it was operating aircraft that are 40 or 50 years old. "There is no military in the world that uses aircraft for such a period," he said. "Flying soldiers in helicopters with knowledge that they should have been removed from service – that's a risk we cannot continue to take."

A large portion of the equipment the military seeks to purchase is from the United States, and is supposed to be funded partly by U.S. defense aid. According to Eshel, there is disagreement within the government regarding how the deals will be financed. Defense Ministry officials are seeking to spread the payment over several years, while Finance Ministry officials have opposed this in closed-door talks, arguing that this would mean an extra 10 billion shekels to the defense budget during a financial crisis.

"We understand well the financial crisis following the coronavirus crisis, but in my view, defense needs are not necessarily opposed to the needs of the economy," Eshel said. In fact, he said, successfully acquiring the equipment will help raise the employment rate. For this reason, he said, defense exports should be expanded to include additional countries and advanced equipment that is not currently exported.

Eshel's comments suggested that there was almost on discussion between the political and professional officials in the military regarding the equipment. "The state isn't coming and saying what it's list of priorities is," he said. "The approach is, 'what you had last year is what you have this year, and you have to make do with that.'"

The director-general also said he believed the change in who occupies the White House won't affect the U.S. commitment to preserving Israel's military edge. "Despite the diplomatic tensions, the scope of the Obama administration's security assistance was unprecedented," he said. "The interests between the countries determine the policy, and not this government or another. Preserving the qualitative edge is enshrined in U.S. law."

He also echoed Defense Minister Benny Gantz in criticizing the fact that the government's agremeent to the U.S. sale of F-35 jets to the United Arab Emirates was kept secret from the Defense Ministry. "Once we learned of the agreement, we worked within a very short period of time to correct the disparity created by the deal," Eshel said. "As far as we're concerned, we were transparent to the political echelon. For our part, we did not hide anything."

In August, the Knesset passed legislation that allowed the government to postpone approving the state budget for 2021 after disagreements between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud and Defense Minister Gantz's Kahol Lavan parties nearly drove the country to a fourth election in less than two years.

The main point of contention preventing the passing of a budget is the demand by Gantz to pass a two-year budget as outlined in the coalition agreement with Likud. In contrast, Netanyahu is determined to pass a one-year budget, which would leave him the option of calling an election next June if the next budget, for 2021, isn’t passed in the spring, before Gantz is supposed to take over as prime minister according to the coalition agreement.

In such a situation, according to the agreement, Netanyahu would remain as prime minister in a caretaker government.

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