Analysis

The Israeli Army Doesn’t Need More Money, It Needs a Functioning Government

Netanyahu talks about a four-billion-shekel budget increase, but prolonged political paralysis is what is harming security

Benjamin Netanyahu and IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi attend an Israel Navy graduation, Haifa, March 6, 2019.
Rami Shllush

Israel’s defense budget must grow by at least 4 billion shekels ($1.15 billion) a year, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Thursday after the Knesset swearing-in ceremony.

However, officials who are involved in defense spending say they have never heard of that number until now. They are unaware of any plans for formidable new weapons systems or innovative defense systems that would justify a budget increase on this scale.

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Netanyahu’s remarks appear to be a restatement of a plan he articulated in August 2018 at a meeting of the security cabinet — a plan he dubbed the “2030 Security Concept.” In it, he spoke about increasing defense spending to 6 percent of Israel’s gross domestic product. The formula would fix the budget at that level regardless of the extent of national security threats Israel faces or the size of the rest of the government’s budget.

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From the British Empire to the Soviet Union, history is filled with examples of military powers that disintegrated because they spent too much on the military instead of the needs of their civilian populations. They went into decline because powerful armies couldn’t protect them against economic decline.

It seems Netanyahu hasn’t learned the lesson and plans to take Israel down the same route.

To the prime minister’s credit, on Thursday he didn’t try to conceal the difficulties of his 4-billion-shekel plan, which could increase the defense budget by 7 percent annually. The government’s fiscal deficit has created a situation where even keeping military spending at the level it is now will require spending cuts across the rest of the budget.

Right now the adjustments that will be needed to bring the 2020 budget is about 20 billion shekels, unless the government is prepared to take the risky step of allowing the national debt as a percentage of GDP to grow. And that is without taking into account the cost of keeping Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon’s “net” program of assistance to middle-class families in force for another three years as a temporary order.

Netanyahu’s 4 billion figure really has more to do with coalition negotiations than with national security threats. He is sending a message to Israeli voters: “We’re facing a difficult period of spending cuts. We need a national unity government led by an experienced prime minister like me to cope with it.”

Kahol Lavan may have three former Israel Defense Forces chiefs of staff at the top of the political alliance, party, but only Netanyahu has the ability to get Israel through this difficult period.

But what is really hurting the defense establishment more than anything else today is the impotence of the political establishment since November when the first of what turned into two general elections was declared. Senior defense sources say the political paralysis is preventing movement on the next multiyear military budget, which the defense and finance ministries should be working on right now.

Without knowing the size and structure of the defense budget for the next few years, army planners aren’t able to plan for arms procurements. In fact, spending for 2020 is an unsettled issue.

Since there is almost no conceivable way that a government can be established and the national budget for 2020 to be written and approved by the Knesset before December 31. That means the army, like the rest of the government, will start next year with no budget. Instead, it will make do with the 2019 spending package, allocated on a month-by-month basis, until lawmakers approve the 2020 package.

Today, the weapons systems that Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi wants aren’t being purchased due to the budgetary uncertainty. Israel’s national security isn’t being harmed by the lack of 4 billion shekels Netanyahu says it needs, but by the lack of a government at all.