Defense Chief's Hard Line on Defense Budget Makes Israel Look Ridiculous

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot (L) and Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon during a visit to IDF Northern Command.Credit: Rami Shlush

The Israel Defense Forces is often criticized for operational or intelligence failures, but the criticism isn’t always justified. Take for example the army’s preparedness for a war it has been waging for many months: the battle over the defense budget and benefits for career officers.

Under Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, the IDF has displayed its core values and principles: knowing the enemy (the Finance Ministry), commitment to the mission (not letting anyone look at budget data), comradeship (look out for one another’s pensions) and good intelligence (announce a plan on streamlining when the Locker committee is crafting a plan on just that).

There are also joint interests with allies (like Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu), and tactics (like a press conference on new plans just as the Locker report is being published).

These preparations worked well and the battle was won. The Locker report was sent to the shredder without much of a fight, not from the Finance Ministry, not from Netanyahu and not from the public. No concerned citizens protested outside the homes of Ya’alon, Netanyahu or Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon.

But Ya’alon isn’t the kind of commander to rest after a battle. He’s busy ensuring that the Locker report is really dead and refuses to let anybody from the committee into the IDF’s meetings on long-term planning.

Ya’alon isn’t recognizing the Locker committee, refuses to meet with it and doesn’t care much for it. His arrogance is troubling. We tend to ridicule countries that endure military coups, but Ya’alon’s conduct over the defense budget makes the Israeli government look ridiculous and attests to Netanyahu’s shortcomings in presiding over his cabinet.

Netanyahu, who convened the Locker committee and put his former military secretary, Maj. Gen. (res.) Yohanan Locker, in charge, did so after a joint decision with Ya’alon and then-Finance Minister Yair Lapid. It was meant to justify the traditional expansion of the defense budget, without making such an expansion look like a bottomless pit. The committee was meant to recommend a maximal budget and the changes necessary to justify it.

The committee did good work. It didn’t get into questions of operational competence, equipment or power structures — issues it couldn't influence  anyway. Instead it sought to expand the defense budget while looking into questions of manpower and lucrative retirement packages for career officers.

We have to admit: The Locker committee caught the IDF off guard. It showed that the military doesn’t know how to explain the number of career officers it employs, the recent increase in this number, or the army’s true manpower needs.

The committee also harshly criticized the military's threat to cancel training due to budget problems, and sought to allot a specific sum for training operations to put an end to such dangerous threats. Most of all, the committee revealed that the army has many commanders but few leaders, so it recommended that metrics on leadership be introduced.

The committee also recommended retirement packages that distinguish between mid-level combat and noncombat officers. The IDF would also distinguish between salaries for people with skills like cybersecurity prowess and those for less stellar officers. After all, that first group is much desired in the private sector.

Ya’alon’s decision to boycott Locker instead of negotiating with him reflects the committee's professionalism more than anything. When you can't argue and the prime minister is weak, simply boycott the commission. That’s how Ya’alon works.

On Monday, Kahlon will bring the proposed 2016 budget to the Knesset floor, and on Wednesday, he’ll prepare it for a first reading. Now’s the time to make clear to the 120 legislators that this budget is a bluff. The defense section notes that the budget for next year is 55.9 billion shekels ($14.2 billion), but everyone knows that it will end up much higher, as usual.

Even the Locker committee felt the budget should top 59 billion shekels. The Finance Ministry, however, doesn’t want to give up on that number for nothing. It wants the defense establishment to take heed of the committee’s recommendations and streamline manpower and retirement perks.

The Finance Ministry’s position is simple. To borrow a phrase from Netanyahu, if you give, you'll get. If you don't give, you won't get.

Let’s be frank and predict that the compromise will be don't give, but you get anyway. After all, that's how it works with an army with a country attached, and with a cabinet where the defense minister isn’t beholden to his superior.

Now, in the private sector, we’ve seen plenty of companies go for broke with exorbitant dividends, wild expansions, cartel-like behavior, gross negligence, exaggerated salaries for chief executives and outrageous prices to the consumer.

These things have led to things like public outcries and salary caps. Companies have been forced to concede; look at Tnuva and the cottage-cheese boycott. But the defense establishment isn’t in the same category. It’s in a class of its own, one of financial mismanagement and a lack of transparency.

And Ya’alon is adding arrogance to the mix. The Locker committee's recommendations give the army a chance to preserve its standing while improving both administratively and vis-a-vis its relationship with Israeli society. All the while, it expands its budget.

Ignoring the Locker report will only further erode the public’s appreciation of the IDF and intensify the public’s distaste for the army. And it’s all Ya’alon’s fault.

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