Paying Too Much for Insurance

When it comes to his 'special means' budget, is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu still faithful to the tradition of restraint of his predecessors?

Avner Cohen
Avner Cohen
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The Nuclear Research Institute in Dimona
The Nuclear Research Institute in DimonaCredit: Reuters
Avner Cohen
Avner Cohen

The Director General of the Defense Ministry, Maj. Gen. (res.) Dan Harel, disclosed last week that 4.5 billion shekels ($1.3 billion) of this year’s defense budget is allocated to “special means.”

Even though he did not give details, one can infer that this line item, similar to the budgets of the Mossad espionage agency and the Shin Bet security service, are under the prime minister’s direct control and are beyond any debate over defense spending. The item is sacrosanct. Harel added that next year, the “special means” line item will rise by 600 million shekels, or around 14 percent.

Until now the “special means” had been considered a deep secret whose budget could not be revealed. But with the coffers running low, the Israel Defense Forces on the verge of halting training and the public apathetic, the heads of the defense establishment (and the military censor) are prepared to disclose even the budget for that holy of holies, if only to say that enough is enough.

Some historical context to illuminate the issue: In the summer of 1954, then-Prime Minister Moshe Sharett asked his predecessor, David Ben-Gurion, whether he was acting in his capacity as prime minister or as defense minister when, two years before, Ben-Gurion had secretly established the Israeli Atomic Energy Commission. In reply, Ben-Gurion said that since he held both positions at the time, he had not considered the matter. He acknowledged that it raised legal issues and said that in his opinion, the agency should report to the prime minister.

Within a year, Ben-Gurion was back in both positions. The unclear legal status was irrelevant once more, and even offered a benefit. The IAEC was subordinate to a single boss, its activities conveniently hidden within the opaque defense budget.

Later the Dimona complex was built by a new government agency, it too without a well-defined legal status, and in the process the IAEC bypassed. One way or another, most of the funding for Dimona didn’t go through the regular state budget.

The project’s leaders, Ben-Gurion and then-Defense Ministry Director General Shimon Peres, held a secret worldwide fundraising campaign, the results of which did not go to the state’s defense budget.

An anecdote illustrates how things were done. At a high-level briefing, Peres supposedly mentioned that Dimona cost tens of millions. The late nuclear physicist Amos de-Shalit, believing that Peres had accidently dropped a zero from the sum, was about to correct him when he felt a sharp kick under the table from Peres. De Shalit understood, and said nothing.

In 1966, after Levi Eshkol became prime minister, he tried to introduce more order into the secret kingdom. The IAEC was reorganized. It was now headed by a director general, under the sole authority of the prime minister, who served as its chairman.

Although Eshkol was still defense minister, a (secret) cabinet resolution gave the prime minister sole responsibility for the agency’s activities. But the budget trick did not end there. In the public part of the Prime Minister’s Office budget, the IAEC received a sum; most of its funding was buried deep in the classified section of the Defense Ministry budget. Eshkol’s loyal new Deputy Defense Minister, Zvi Dinstein, was put in charge.

Eshkol and Golda Meir, during whose tenures the “special means” allegedly began, were not experts on the matter, but common sense and wise counsel shaped a tradition of restraint regarding the “special means” share of the total defense budget. Yitzhak Rabin and his IAEC director general Shalheveth Freier blocked unwise programs.

With few exceptions, a national code of responsibility and restraint took hold. Everyone understood that “special means” was an insurance policy against the most extreme scenarios, and that we were committed to their never coming about.

This year the United States will spend about $19 billion on in its nuclear-weapons activities, including Department of Energy infrastructure, of a total military budget of about $640 billion, or slightly under 3 percent. Britain, with a much smaller army, will spend around 6 percent of its military budget on programs related to nuclear weapons.

As can be inferred from Harel’s remarks, about 9 percent of Israel’s total defense budget goes to “special means.” That is nearly 20 percent of the IDF’s budget alone. Astonishing.

One must, of course, not rush to conclusions. The difficulty of calculating and defining the annual costs of such programs is acknowledged worldwide. Some such projects have dual and even triple use, and it’s hard to assign categories. In addition, translating development activity and system life cycles into annual budgets is also inherently difficult. And in Israel, at least, more is concealed than is revealed.

But one can wonder: When it comes to his strategic priorities as they are reflected in his “special means” budget, is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu still faithful to the tradition of restraint of his predecessors? Does he also view these systems solely as an insurance policy for the most otherworldly of circumstances? If so, why is he spending so much on an insurance policy we will never use? It certainly leaves room for concern.

The author is professor of nonproliferation studies at the Monterey Institute and Education Program director of the institute’s Center of Nonproliferation Studies. His latest book is “The Worst-Kept Secret: Israel’s Bargain with the Bomb” (2010).

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