Battle Over Israel’s Defense Budget Heating Up Again

Every year defense officials pressure the prime minister over the size of the defense budget. Billions more are added.

Ilan Assayag

After a lull of a few months, the clash over the defense budget escalated again last week at the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. Although the final outcome is not clear, the amounts involved are huge — around 60 billion shekels ($17.4 billion) a year.

Defense officials are asking for a 2-billion-shekel supplement to this year’s budget and a boost of about 5 billion shekels for the proposed 2015 budget. The Finance Ministry opposes these requests, which would come at the expense of other areas in the budget.

Last week Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon appeared in front of the committee along with the heads of his ministry’s budget and planning division. The officials painted a picture of major financial distress in the Israel Defense Forces.

The offensive continued on Friday, when it was announced that Ya’alon and IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz were scrapping the annual civil defense drill by the Home Front Command. The exercise is a relatively low-cost affair and one can assume that it will ultimately take place, but a senior defense source said the threat was not an idle one.

“It’s simply the reality,” the source said. “The resources of the defense establishment and the IDF have run out.”

At Wednesday’s hearing, the committee members chose not to respond to the Defense Ministry’s requests. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Finance Minister Yair Lapid haven’t commented on the matter either.

Netanyahu apparently didn’t respond because he was busy preparing for his departure Sunday night for Japan. In fact, every year defense officials try to pressure the prime minister over the size of the defense budget. In the end, more and more billions are approved.

On Wednesday, Ya’alon is said to have told the committee that Israel’s security would be harmed if the additional funds that he was requesting were not approved.

“The immediate significance is harm to training exercises, fitness, preparedness and readiness,” he said. “It’s a sorry picture from every perspective.” The defense burden was just 3.7% of gross national product, not including aid from the United States, while five years ago the percentage was nearly double that, Ya’alon added.

The Finance Ministry kept its response succinct. It noted that the Defense Ministry’s budget had been approved by the entire cabinet, including the defense minister.

“Only recently the [defense] ministry was given a supplement of 3 billion shekels,” the treasury said in a statement. “The Defense Ministry must abide by a budget framework as the other ministries do.”