Don’t Touch Our Soldiers, Trim the Army’s Fat

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Israeli soldiers sit on their armored personnel carrier as they clean their weapons, at a staging area on the Israel Gaza border. Credit: AP

This is the stage of the fighting in Gaza in which we pretend not to talk about money. But it’s only pretend. There are already strong hints that, the minute hostilities end, defense budget issues will be raised with the same magnitude of force that the army has deployed on the ground. There are already those hinting that the infamous unprotected armored personnel carrier that led to so many deaths (seven) in Shujaiyeh was the consequence of the budget cuts forced on the army.

Reports from Haaretz’s military correspondent, Amos Harel, note that the army quickly learned its lesson and began to deploy the newer Namer APCs exclusively in Gaza, while banning entry of the older M113 APCs. A little late, but it shows that the Israel Defense Forces is not short of the newer APCs – it’s only a question of priorities and risk management.

When the dust settles and the battles end, the cynical use of the war damage for purposes of increasing the budget will grow.

There is no doubt that the defense budget will grow. The question is merely by how much, and at whose expense. Raising the value-added tax by a percentage point or two? Taking the 1 billion shekels ($288 million) the health-care system was supposed to get to shorten waiting times for surgery and specialists? Raising the number of students in classrooms? Pulling Finance Minister Yair Lapid’s proposal for zero-VAT on new homes for certain first-time home buyers? One of the ministers from Lapid’s Yesh Atid party said of that this week, “There can be cuts in everything, but Lapid won’t allow anyone to touch zero VAT.”

At least two senior government sources said last week that they thought there would be no choice but to make an across-the-board cut for all ministries in the 2015 budget. Every day that passes without a cease-fire increases the chances that this cut will be more painful, and that it will have to be supplemented by tax increases or a bigger deficit.

But we must be wary, as the debate heats up, of being manipulated by the strong feelings that the fighting in Gaza arouses. The use of inadequately armored APCs because of “fiscal constraints” is one type of manipulation, since the debate is unlikely to get down to the detail of how many tanks, APCs, planes, Iron Dome batteries and level of protection the army needs.

And that’s just the beginning. For example, there will be those who say that restraining spending risks our young soldiers. But this is demagogic and cynical. The fighters are the cheapest people in the army. Enlisted men are paid 847 shekels a month, while officers up to the rank of captain just starting their professional service don’t enjoy high salaries at all – and they constitute over 80% of those fighting in Gaza. No one is asking these groups to suffer cuts in manpower, arms or equipment.

The real spending is devoted to higher-ranked officers who aren’t in the field but enjoy generous retirement benefits that no one else in Israel has.

It is very easy to get carried away in supporting the army and its heroic soldiers, and open our purses. It is very easy to allow feelings of guilt/identification/victimization to come to the fore; it’s harder to distinguish where the army spends lavishly and where it doesn’t, or that every supplement to the defense budget comes at the expense of something else.

And the hardest thing is to remember that, even in such times when the defense budget will inevitably grow, we still have to ensure that the money is going to the right places, and that the defense establishment is making itself more efficient and setting the proper priorities.

There has been a very broad consensus over the justness of the war and the goals set by the government, but don’t let this unity confuse you: When the fighting ends, it will dissolve very quickly. It is reasonable to assume that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will back a large increase for defense in next year’s budget – both because he really believes it’s needed, and because he is worried that Lapid is promoting problematic ideas such as zero VAT.

Moreover, Lapid’s Yesh Atid party controls three big-budget ministries: health, which has been promised an additional 1 billion shekels to implement the German committee recommendations on improving the health-care system; social affairs, which wants to advance the recommendations of the Allaluf committee on fighting poverty – at a cost of 6 billion shekels a year; and education, where spending cuts reverberate through the economy for years afterward.

Lapid was the one who – after he became finance minister last year and slashed the budget and raised taxes – promised that “in another year and a half or two, it will be better.” We can’t really blame him for not predicting the war in Gaza. But even without the war he will have a hard time keeping his promises.

And then there’s Hamas

Money questions will be keeping not only us busy after the war, but also Hamas. Most Israelis would be happy if Gaza simply vanished, but the 1.8 million Palestinians who live there are not going anywhere. What we have to think about is the opposite scenario: a Marshall Plan for Gaza.

The idea is to use the resources of the Gulf oil sheikhdoms to develop infrastructure, schools, hospitals, employment and housing that will make life there livable. If they have something to lose, it will distance them from the next round of fighting. They could come alongside with a security agreement that includes ridding Gaza of missiles, and securing border crossings, the Gaza port and its airport under international auspices. This is the only way to rebuild Gaza and create conditions for normal life.

The finest brains in Israel are almost certainly currently thinking about how to deal with the tunnels from Gaza. Quite a lot of thought and resources will be invested in this, justifiably. Meanwhile, other threats will most likely appear. Twenty years ago, we went around Gaza in bulletproof jeeps, wearing ceramic bulletproof vests to protect against explosive devices. When we left, we were targeted by Qassam rockets and mortar shells. Later came the tunnels and missiles of longer and longer ranges. We responded with the Iron Dome anti-missile batteries.

This arms race can go on forever, but it’s better that we begin a debate on rehabilitating Gaza. Rebuilding Gaza economically is an Israeli interest, and it can only be done with Hamas as a partner. Hamas prefers to spend donors’ money on tunnels and missiles, but in the negotiations over the end of the fighting, Israel should place economic development on the table and demand help from the international community.

Of course, this isn’t a new idea. Demilitarization of Gaza and economic development have been on the agenda since the Oslo Accords over 20 years ago, and it has yet to happen. But the repeated violence of the past 21 years are a good enough reason for the world to take the issue of development more seriously.

It may seem naive to talk about rehabilitating Gaza at a time when we are dropping tons of bombs on it and they are shooting hundreds of rockets at us, but Gaza will not disappear after this operation.

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