In presenting the Locker committee report on Tuesday, the Prime Minister’s Office went out of its way to stress how much the panel was created to address the military’s needs first and foremost. It noted that two of the committee members were reserve generals – Chairman Yonatan Locker and Ami Shafran – and promised that its findings would take into account Israel’s defense needs.
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The fact is the Locker committee was very generous in weighing the army’s budget needs, saying defense spending of 59 billion shekels ($15.5 billion) annually is what the troops need over the next five years. That’s about 7 billion shekels more than the Finance Ministry had planned to allocate to defense next year and demands much less onerous efficiency measures.
That the panel opted for higher defense spending isn’t happenstance. It seems Locker himself chose to go some way towards his former comrades on the matter of spending to compensate them for all the painful reforms he is proposing for other areas of defense. There are a lot of those. The report is among the most highly critical of the Israel Defense Forces ever written.
The fact that Locker himself is a military man allowed him to say what needed to be said, namely that when it comes to defense spending, no one believes the army any longer, or the Defense Ministry.
That distrust extends even to the raw data the army provides, which becomes evident to anyone leafing through the committee’s report. It starts in the opening pages, where the committee accuses the finance and defense ministries of providing it with misleading information. In the case of the treasury, that may be due to a paucity of resources – the ministry has just three officials in the budget division overseeing the defense budget – but in the case of the Defense Ministry and the IDF the dissembling was intentional, the panels suspects.
“The defense establishment has a tendency to impose exaggerated spending restrictions on the assumption that they will create pressure for budget supplements,” the Locker committee notes at one point. “Efficiency measures that the army undertook after the Brodet report are hard to identify,” it said referring to another spending-reform panel from 2007. “The Defense Ministry accepts the army’s demands prima facie and sees itself as the army’s representative to the cabinet,” it asserts. “The alternatives given the cabinet aren’t real ones but straw men.” “The willingness of the Defense Ministry to provide data is limited.”
Locker’s deep suspicions about his former colleagues are expressed in the committee’s main recommendations on budget supervision. They are based on doubts, never quite put into words, about the ability to the Defense Ministry to oversee the defense budget, even though that is one of its primary tasks, according to the law.
“On a civilian level, the Defense Ministry’s job is to supervise the army and monitor it,” the Locker panel says in its report. “[But] the committee was surprised to discover that the Defense Ministry doesn’t regard that as a goal. The blurring of borders between the defense Ministry and the IDF doesn’t enable the ministry to fulfill its role as supervisor of the army and monitor. The army and the Defense Ministry are one.”
It shouldn’t be much of a surprise. Since David Ben-Gurion stepped down as defense minister, the ministry gave up its role as the army’s responsible parent. That was more than half a century ago, and Locker isn’t trying to change this long-standing relationship. It’s a lost cause.
Instead, the Locker panel proposes that the National Security Council in the PMO take over that function. Compared to the Defense Ministry, the NSC is a feeble midget and until now has failed to play any disciplinary role in army spending. The Defense Ministry and the IDF ignore it.
Giving the NSC is a key role in imposing fiscal discipline on the defense establishment is a recommendation made out of desperation.
To help the NSC, the Locker committee is proposing to strengthen its powers: The NSC would become a statutory body that would have to sign off on the defense budget. The defense establishment would have to present it with budget options, all of which fit into the bigger fiscal framework. The NSC would have the power to approve all major procurement budgets and enjoy complete access to spending data.
More than that, Locker is demanding a new era of transparency in defense spending. “The committee recommends that implementing the proposals on the matter of transparency be a condition for approving the defense budget for the year 2016,” it says. No less than that.
Locker understands his colleagues’ mentality and knows that without clear sanctions on the army and Defense Ministry, the long-standing tradition of fiscal camouflage won’t go away.