Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is said to be seeking a large increase in the defense budget even while military chief Gadi Eisenkot is not, convened on Wednesday the first meeting between treasury and security officials to discuss Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s demand for a hike in funding for his ministry.
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Netanyahu may even try to push through a larger defense increase than Lieberman is requesting. Lieberman said this week that the Israel Defense Forces needs an additional 4.8 billion shekels ($1.36 billion) over the next three years.
Attending Wednesday’s meeting were Netanyahu, Lieberman, Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, Chief of General Staff Gadi Eisenkot, and officials from the Prime Minister’s Office, Defense Ministry and Finance Ministry.
The discussion was relatively short, primarily because the prime minister had to resolve a political crisis regarding railroad infrastructure work scheduled for this coming Shabbat.
The defense establishment’s demands for an additional budget are rooted in the large surpluses in the state coffers as a result of higher-than-expected tax revenue. Speaking publicly about his demands for the first time on Monday, Lieberman explained that Israel has to respond to the strategic changes that have taken place in the Middle East over the past two years, primarily Russia’s increased presence in the region, the Assad regime’s success in the Syrian civil war, the arming of Hezbollah with precision weapons by Iran and the development of a regional arms race.
The defense minister wants to use the money to purchase precision munitions for the IDF, manufacture more interceptors for the missile interceptor systems; upgrade the ground forces and improve home front defenses.
The treasury objects to an increase, recalling that two years ago Kahlon signed an agreement with former defense minister Moshe Ya’alon and Eisenkot in which the defense establishment promised not to demand additional budgets in return for a promise of a stable budget for five years. This agreement made it possible to implement the IDF’s multiyear plan, which was Eisenkot’s top priority.
This is why Eisenkot disagrees with Lieberman’s demand for an increase, even though he agrees that the strategic circumstances in the region have changed. The treasury has already warned that reopening the agreement will require a reexamination of other understandings between the parties, including the model for the standing army’s salaries and IDF pension arrangements.
Sources, however, say Lieberman’s demands are moderate compared to what the premier is considering. Netanyahu believes there is a wide range of new security needs that the budget should deal with in the coming years. The prime minister is particularly concerned about Iranian actions, especially Iran’s military buildup in Syria.
The cost of Netanyahu’s demands could be two or more times the sum requested by Lieberman. However, as far as is known, Netanyahu did not specify in Wednesday’s meeting how much of an increase he is seeking.