Analysis

Israeli Army's Next Front: A War With the Treasury Over Military Budget

The appointment of the new IDF spokesman, who worked with Kochavi on multi-year plans, reveals the direction the military will take in the budget fight

IDF chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, at a ceremony for the appointment of a new military academies commander, in March.
Moti Milrod

The decision to appoint Brig. Gen. Hidai Zilberman as the next IDF Spokesman seems to be the obvious move as far as IDF Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi is concerned. After the failure of his attempt to appoint a professional from outside the military, his close confidant Gil Messing, Kochavi went back and looked for candidates from within the General Staff.

Zilberman, whose present post is the head of the General Staff’s planning division, worked alongside Kochavi in recent years, including when the latter was still deputy chief of staff.

Brig. Gen. Hidai Zilberman, who was nominated to be the next IDF Spokesman, on June 13, 2019.
IDF Spokesperson's Unit

The appointment, announced last Thursday, nonetheless reflects a certain amount of urgency in the appointments at the top of the IDF. Zilberman was supposed to have become the military attaché in a foreign country, but instead this appointment was canceled and Kochavi decided to make him the commander of the new “innovation branch” that is due to be established in the General Staff. Now his second planned appointment has been canceled too in favor of closing the breach created in the appointment of a new IDF Spokesman. If only appointments to a post and not actually doing the job counted for something in the army, then Zilberman would have been ready to be promoted to major general by now. 

Instead, Zilberman’s appointment  – whether by coincidence or not – also expresses the main issue on the agenda of Kochavi, his spokesman and his entire General Staff over the next year: The conflict between the IDF and the Finance Ministry. A budgetary crisis is worrying the defense establishment. Kochavi, so it seems, is about to run into a rather similar situation that faced one of his predecessors, Benny Gantz, the 20th chief of staff, during whose time from 2011 to 2015 two multi-year plans were frozen.

The solution only came during the term of Kochavi’s predecessor, Gadi Eisenkot, who managed to have his “Gideon” multi-year plan approved and at the same time back it up with a series of unusual agreements with Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon. The personal chemistry forged between Kahlon and Eisenkot created a rather unique channel for dialogue between the two and they reached a series of understandings and the seasonal budget battles (which former Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon used to call the “Turkish bazaar’) turned into a total ceasefire for four years.  

Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon with former Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot at Hatzerim air base, in southern Israel, in 2016.
IDF Spokesperson's Unit

Eisenkot continued with the plan that began under Gantz to cut 5,000 jobs from the professional military, cutting its numbers down to 40,000. He was also the first chief of staff who began to limit – and much too late – the extravagant pensions and grants given to officers retiring from the army.

Eisenkot also kept his promise not to ask for supplemental budgets, even when Ya’alon’s successor Avigdor Lieberman thought they were essential.

In return, Kahlon tried to meet the IDF part of the way in setting a relatively high defense budget, maintaining the stability of the military’s long-term planning and in imposing a total ban on treasury staff fighting with officers. But this utopia is now about to come to an end.

The government – as even Kahlon, Lieberman and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu now admit, each from their own standpoint – is facing a huge “hole” in the budget, estimated in the tens of billions of shekels. It seems the IDF too will be required to give its share too this time. 

Soldiers participating in an exercise at the Israel Defense Forces Tze'elim base, June 2019.
Eliyahu Hershkowitz

The Budgets Division in the Finance Ministry has had so many disappointments in the past from its battles against the military. The army may have the habit of complaining bitterly every time about the agreements reached, but in the test of time it almost always came out on top. 

The tone coming out of the Finance Ministry today, however, is militant and ready for war once again, just as it was at the beginning of the decade. This time, no special relationship exists between the finance minister and chief of staff, and even worse the country is now preparing for a repeat election which – and in the coalition negotiations that will follow the election – will cost the economy and government quite a lot.

As reported in Haaretz two weeks ago – in a report that alarmed Kochavi – the treasury plans on reopening the discussion on shortening military service for men. Eisenkot, as part of his understandings with Kahlon, shortened men’s service by four months and supported cutting another two months, to two and a half years in total, in 2020. Kochavi, as Eisenkot’s deputy, opposed any further cut. Now the treasury is recommending another massive cut in service – to only two years.

Israeli forces close to the border with Gaza, on March 26, 2019.
IDF Spokesperson's Unit

This isn’t even all of it: Haaretz has learned that the Finance Ministry is beginning to consider demanding an additional cut in the number of professional military jobs, on the scale of a few thousand more being let go. For the military, which is still crying over the firing of 5,000 and is complaining of the cracks the new model for professional army service has caused in its relations with its officers, this could well be seen as especially bad news. 

This situation is diametrically opposed to the ambitious plans Kochavi has sketched out for the IDF. Up until a year ago, Netanyahu and Lieberman were competing between them to see who could throw out more billions in terms of what the army needed. Netanyahu, who has presented the general framework of his “Vision 2030” plan for the IDF, which is based on a military rich in technology and intelligence capabilities, even talked about linking defense spending to the rise in the gross domestic product.

Times have changed since then, but even that is not the entire story. The Gideon multi-year plan is to a great extent based on an optimistic window of opportunity that Eisenkot recognized. During the first half of the decade, the Netanyahu governments spent enormous sums on preparing for a possible war with Iran: About 12 billion shekels ($3.3 billion at today’s exchange rates), according to his predecessor, Ehud Olmert. The true figure could be even higher. The nuclear deal with Iran in 2015 allowed Eisenkot to divert resources for other purposes in the Gideon plan, at the expense of dealing with the Iranian threat.

Last year, the Trump administration announced – with Netanyahu’s encouragement – that the United States was withdrawing from the Iranian nuclear deal. The present crisis in the Persian Gulf, along with the Iranian threat to violate the nuclear agreement, increases the chances of a final collapse of the deal devised by the Obama administration. The danger that this will develop into a direct military confrontation, which will involve Israel too, still looks to be unlikely. But Netanyahu and Lieberman, who disagree on just about everything else, have spoken at various forums in recent months about the need to once again enhance military preparedness against threats from the "third circle," far from Israel.

Kochavi’s plans will have a hard time being recused from this pincer movement, with Iran on one side and the budget deficit on the other. Over the weekend, in an interesting article by Alex Fishman in Yedioth Ahronoth, Kochavi laid out a few of his ideas on where the IDF is heading under his leadership. You can argue about some of the insights presented in the article. The reliance on “lethality” and the systematic destruction of the enemy forces as a measure of victory in war reminds one, to a somewhat worrying extent, of the conceptual trap the American military fell into in the body counts of the Vietcong throughout the war in Vietnam.

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But the main issue lies elsewhere: Where will the money come from? Kochavi knows that at least in this case he can expect a fierce battle against the treasury and maybe also against the next prime minister. The appointment of Zilberman, who specialized in preparing the plans, is meant to help in the media campaign when it occurs.  

The military confrontations that Israel is involved in break out – in many cases – as a result of circumstances and not the result of prior planning.

Still, if we add to this forecast Netanyahu’s tendency to avoid military adventures, we can evaluate that despite his hawkish rhetoric toward Hamas and Hezbollah, Netanyahu (if he remains in the job) desires to preserve the existing situation on all fronts.

His traditional fear of becoming ensnared, alongside the budgetary constraints, will require containment on the other fronts. Netanyahu will continue to focus his attention on what is the most important security issue for him: Iran. His close confidant, former general and national security adviser Yaakov Amidror, hinted at this in a radio interview last week with the Kan public broadcaster: Iran is the entire story and nothing else is important. All the rest are secondary issues.