Israeli Defense Minister Wants to Increase Defense Budget, Violating Predecessor's 'Historic' Deal

Avigdor Lieberman has been saying privately that $20 billion a year is insufficient to address new regional challenges

Defense Minister Lieberman, left, and IDF Chief of Staff Eisenkot, foreground, in Halamish, July 22, 2017.
Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry

Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman plans to seek an unspecified increase in the defense budget over the next few years, thereby violating understandings reached between his predecessor, Moshe Ya’alon, and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon.

In November 2015, Ya’alon and Kahlon signed a memorandum of understanding between their respective ministries that both men deemed a historic agreement. Some of the details of this deal, which covered the years 2016 to 2020, remain classified. But based on the information to given the media, it promised a stable budget for those five years, which correspond with the years covered by the army’s multiyear proposal, known as the Gideon Plan.

Specifically, the ministries and Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot agreed that the army’s portion of the defense budget would remain fixed at about 31 billion shekels ($8.8 billion) a year during this period.

For the defense budget as a whole, the agreement set a baseline of 56.1 billion shekels a year. With the addition of U.S. defense aid ($3.8 billion a year from 2019), adjustments for inflation and other line items, the total could reach about 70 billion shekels a year.

After the agreement was signed, both the Defense Ministry and the military boasted that the agreement would give the army, for the first time, financial stability and the ability to engage in long-term planning. Two previous multiyear plans had been suspended and then canceled due to ongoing disputes with the treasury.

The deal also included agreements on reducing the number of career officers and introducing a new model of service that would also reduce pension costs.

Over the past few months, however, Lieberman has repeatedly declared in closed forums that the hefty sums Ya’alon extracted from the treasury are insufficient in light of the new security situation. Lieberman is concerned about developments that include the persistent regional instability, Hezbollah’s Iranian-financed arms buildup, the possibility that Iranian forces and/or Shi’ite militias might be stationed in Syria near the Israeli border and the possibility that the Assad regime’s victory in the Syrian civil war will lead to the rehabilitation of the Syrian army. The Damascus regime’s military capabilities have steadily eroded over the past five years, leading Israel to nearly discount Syria’s army as a serious threat that must be taken into consideration.

Lieberman is also presumably worried about the performance of maintenance units in the Israel Defense Forces as well as the level of preparedness of certain ground force units troops for a major war, given the Gideon Plan’s limited spending in these areas. All this has led him to conclude that the government must consider increasing the defense budget.

Lieberman has yet to submit any detailed demands to the treasury, and it’s not clear how Kahlon would respond, given that the finance minister has repeatedly stressed the need to stay within the existing budget and that he gives greater priority to spending on health, education and welfare.

Nevertheless, history shows that when the defense establishment demands more money to cope with external developments, it usually doesn’t go away empty-handed.