Strategic developments in the Middle East, ranging from Russia’s presence in Syria to Iran’s missile development program, have caused Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman to reassess the military’s budgetary needs.
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According to a five-year agreement that his predecessor, Moshe Ya’alon, signed with Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, the defense budget was set at 56.1 billion shekels ($16.0 billion) a year, excluding the annual military aid from the United States.
“Since the agreement was signed, there has been a dramatic substantive change in the region,” he stated during a briefing for journalists on Monday. “We’ve reached a situation where we’re having trouble providing for our security needs.”
Lieberman said this regional change had three main components. First is the massive Russian military presence in Syria, which didn’t exist a few years ago. Second is the acquisition of precision weaponry by some of Israel’s enemies. Third is Iran’s military build-up – especially its missile development program, which worries not just Israel, but many Arab states as well – and its consolidation of its presence in Syria.
When the agreement with the treasury was signed, Lieberman said, the assumption was that “we had no clear state enemy, because Syria appeared to be falling apart. But it’s impossible to keep ignoring the fact that Iran wants to be seen in the region as an influential country, and it has a deep foothold in Syria.”
“We’re constantly trying to make our red lines clear to the other side,” he added. “We’re continuously shaping the reality along the northern border. This has a potential for escalation, but we’re doing everything we can not to enter a state of war.”
So far, Lieberman said, Israel is unaware of any Iranian bases in Syria, but it doesn’t rule out the possibility that such bases might be built in the near future.
A recent agreement on Syria’s future signed by Russia and the United States “doesn’t include a seaport or airports for the Iranian army in Syria,” he noted. “But Israel won’t accept a situation in which Iran does have a seaport or airport in Syria. We made this clear to the Americans and the Russians in the most overt manner possible; we’re dealing transparently with them on this issue.”
For years after the Syrian civil war began in 2011, Israeli intelligence predicted that the war would weaken the Assad regime significantly, and thereby also weaken the threat Syria posed to Israel. But today, Lieberman said, “90 percent of Syria’s populated territory is back under Assad’s control, so the regime controls most of Syria’s citizens. In this sense, the Russians achieved their goals in Syria” – preserving the Assad regime and undermining the Islamic State.
But regarding the latter group, Lieberman said the terrorist organization “wasn’t defeated and liquidated; it has changed shape, and it’s migrating with its ideas to various places outside Syria.”
Army sources also cited another factor that they said justified increasing the defense budget: Assessments of other Arab armies that were accurate when the agreement with the treasury was signed are no longer valid, because Arab states have embarked on an arms race since then. The trigger for this, they said, was the nuclear deal signed by Iran and the major powers in 2015, which ended sanctions on Tehran and thereby enabled it to launch its own military build-up.
“After the powers’ agreement with Iran and the end of sanctions on Iran, we’ve seen a significant increase both in their weapons purchases and in those of other countries,” a senior Israel Defense Forces officer said. “To maintain its qualitative edge, the IDF needs to make adjustments. Moreover, arms purchases today are much more expensive than they were in 2015.”
Lieberman also cited the increased cost of arms, noting, for instance, that the new F-35 fighter jet is much more expensive than the F-16s the IDF has used until now. But the army had already committed to acquire the F-35 when the deal with the treasury was signed, and the cost of that purchase was figured into the deal.
Army sources said that work on the border fence around the Gaza Strip and the West Bank security barrier had also resulted in unplanned expenditures of 570 million shekels. In addition, Lieberman said, his ministry is paying to reinforce houses in the north against rockets, even though the Housing Ministry is in charge of that project. He said his ministry has allocated 150 million shekels over 10 years for this purpose.
“As of today, one-third of the north’s population still isn’t properly protected in the event of a conflict involving missile fire,” he said, adding that if war caught the north unprepared, people would blame his ministry, not the Housing Ministry.
Regarding the internal Palestinian reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas, Lieberman said Fatah hasn’t yet transferred any funds to Hamas, but Israel believes Hamas will stick to the agreement “to get money for fuel, salaries and promoting their interests in Gaza.”
As a result of these developments, Lieberman wants the baseline budget increased by 4.8 billion shekels over the next three years. While this increase technically violates the Ya’alon-Kahlon agreement, Lieberman justified his demand by citing the agreement’s provision that it could be reopened if a “substantive change” in the security situation occurred.