Analysis

Now Defense Minister, Netanyahu Suddenly Warms to Security Establishment's Demands

The prime minister knows a military escalation will torpedo his political advantage

Amos Harel
Chaim Levinson
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot visiting the border with Gaza.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot visiting the border with Gaza.Credit: Haim Hornstein
Amos Harel
Chaim Levinson

Maj. General Amikam Norkin, commander of the Israel Air Force, was seen on Wednesday in the corridors of the Knesset – which by itself is unusual – holding a ring binder of documents, talking with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In the coming weeks Netanyahu will be seen with increasing frequency in the company of senior defense officials. That is related to his decision to retain the defense portfolio on a temporary basis that is likely to become permanent, but also to the intersection of security and political developments.

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Netanyahu knows that a military escalation, especially in the Gaza Strip, is liable to endanger what appears to be his clear advantage in public opinion in advance of the coming election. Managing the potential crisis will require close supervision and greater coordination with the heads of the security branches, a group with which he didn’t enjoy good relations in its previous incarnations.

Under these circumstances, the man who as finance minister frequently fought the budgetary demands of the defense establishment is now demonstrating extraordinary openness and generosity. This week, mainly for political reasons, he approved the across-the-board cutback of 22 billion shekels ($5.9 billion) in the government ministries in order to fund the huge salary increases for policemen, prison wardens and defense establishment pensioners.

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And for the past year Netanyahu, without support from the IDF General Staff, has been working to obtain a significant increase in the defense budget in the coming years, as part of what he calls “IDF 2030” – his vision for a technological, resource-intensive army, based mainly on the Air Force and Military Intelligence, in a decade from now.

As part of the discussion in recent weeks, the prime minister applied heavy pressure for a specific budget addition, despite the firm opposition of the Finance Ministry. Netanyahu wants an immediate addition of 400 million shekels, earmarked for missile- and rocket-interception systems. The understanding, which is becoming increasingly clear after the recent rounds of fighting with Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip, is that in any future war, rockets fired at the Israeli home front will serve as the enemy’s principal means of attack.

And although even in the recent escalations the Iron Dome anti-missile system proved itself with good interception rates, there is a need for a massive reinforcement of the various systems to improve the defensive arsenal. In a future conflict in the north, of course, even that won’t suffice. The mass of cheap rockets in Hezbollah’s hands is capable of flooding the interception systems, and some of the rockets will penetrate and cause casualties on the home front to an extent that Israel has not experienced in the past. The budget that Netanyahu is requesting is part of the effort to reduce the built-in gap to some extent, but there is no reasonable economically feasible way of closing the gap totally.

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