The budget is an essential tool in all democratic countries to ensure public oversight of the work of government. Parliament approves the budget and it is supervised by expert bodies, whose job is to protect the public purse. Budget documents which are made public give every interested citizen the ability to examine the government's priorities, which manifest themselves in the way funding is distributed.
Since the establishment of the state, the security establishment has enjoyed confidentiality with regard to the details of its budget, justified by the need to keep secrets from enemy intelligence services.
This lack of transparency has impaired public scrutiny of security expenditure, which represents a large chunk of the Israeli economy. The security establishment wants us to believe it when it claims that it is managing itself efficiently and economically. It is having trouble persuading us, though, since the public does not have sufficient information about its activities. When the watchful eye is distant, the temptation is great to inflate job slots, exaggerate salary increments and hike up pension conditions.
The Israel Defense Forces and the Defense Ministry, whose activities are visible in part to the public, are under a certain amount of scrutiny, and are facing demands for budget cuts and streamlining. In comparison to them, the secret services - the Mossad and the Shin Bet security service - live in a hothouse of secrecy.
Their funding is hidden under the neutral heading of "General reserve," and is transferred to its destination only after the general budget is approved in the Knesset. Under the aegis of this ambiguousness, there has never been a political or public debate over the question of whether the expenditures of the secret services are reasonable, or over the employment conditions of their personnel.
In Monday's Haaretz, Aluf Benn reported on the budgets of the Shin Bet and the Mossad over the past eight years, as they appear in Finance Ministry reports. It turns out that in Benjamin Netanyahu's four years as prime minister, these services, which are under his aegis, enjoyed generous funding, with budgets that grew to NIS 6 billion in 2012. This amount never came up for discussion outside of closed forums, which made it possible for the Shin Bet and the Mossad to stay out of public discourse on the size of security outlays.
In recent years Israel has promoted freedom of information, and the Shin Bet and the Mossad have come out of the shadows in which they operated in the past. The names of their chiefs - once considered a deep secret - are now openly published. The time has come to stop playing hide-and-seek with the budget and present the annual cost of the secret services alongside the rest of the security establishment. There is no security risk in doing so. Only a reminder that the Shin Bet and the Mossad are also state institutions, which must also stand up to the scrutiny of the public they serve, just like any other government authority.