Barak, Treasury Continue Budget Battle in Finance Committee

Knesset takes sides in fight over defense budget.

The Knesset Finance Committee met yesterday to help understand the dispute between the defense and finance ministries over next year's defense budget.

"We have nothing to hide, but there is one thing we will not give up on: The ability to fulfill our missions," said Defense Minister Ehud Barak yesterday. The session was held at his office in Tel Aviv.

barak - Yaron Kaminsky - December 9 2011
Yaron Kaminsky

Barak accused the treasury of continually trying to erode the defense budget and not allow it to keep up with the real growth in its needs and expenditures.

A number of MKs criticized how the ministry is managed. Committee chairman Moshe Gafni (United Torah Judaism ) said the battle between the two ministries must come to an end. He said he did not accept the word of either Barak or of Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz. "If you do not succeed in solving the dispute, [we] will break up the government and go to elections," said Gafni. The committee, and the Knesset, will be required to decide on the level of defense spending soon. In addition to meeting the needs of the Defense Ministry, the Trajtenberg committee recommendations on socioeconomic change were based on using some NIS 2-3 billion in savings from the defense budget.

In response to accusations, Barak also said the defense budget is completely transparent and all the ministry's expenditures are spent on defense. "The rise in salaries in the Israel Defense Forces lags very much behind all government ministries," said Barak. He said the Defense Ministry must keep its freedom to manage its own budget, saying he would not allow others to interfere and create a situation where he was forced to cut training, equipment and not be able to carry out operations "because we did not receive approval from a commander in the Finance Ministry."

MK Uri Ariel (National Union ) said the Defense Ministry was not carrying out the cabinet decision, ordering them to provide detailed reports of all changes in the defense budget of over NIS 30 million. "You are regularly violating the law. We will not make do with a statement that it is in the DNA of the ministry," said Ariel. He said it was not necessary to report on every million-shekel change, but transparency on the level of tens of millions of shekels was necessary, and no proper examination of the defense budget has been conducted for decades.

The Defense Ministry comptroller, Tzahi Malach, told the MKs that he does not have the freedom to carry out his job, and therefore his effectiveness is limited. Malach, who serves in the Defense Ministry but is appointed by and also reports to the Finance Ministry, said he was not a partner in managing the budget or the risks involved. He came to the meeting only because the MKs demanded it.

Outgoing director general of the Prime Minister's Office, Eyal Gabai, has proposed giving the defense comptroller more powers and more access to the data on the defense budget, which is currently limited. But the ministry refused any such increased access, said Gabai. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will have to make a decision on the issue soon, said Gabai.