Taking Stock / Goodie. Let's Attack Montreal

Mobile playstation? Virtual keyboard? Miniaturized video camera?

Nah. The hottest gadget around is the Apache Longbow.

If you don't know what that is, you evidently haven't been keeping tabs on the Israeli army's procurement. This week, three spanking new Apache Longbow helicopters arrived in the Holy Land, thus becoming the army's latest toy.

The air force top brass is totally delighted. One of its officers even chortled to Ynet this week that the copter sports a wireless Internet system. It certainly is an exciting machine, one of the nicest doodads the Americans have given us for ages.

The Apache Longbow has more than wireless Internet: it's the most advanced attack helicopter in the world, boasting state-of-the-art radar, a digital communications system, automatic target choice, and the latest radar-guided missiles. No wonder the Israel Air Force is so thrilled.

There's one other little thing - we apparently don't need it. But that's apparently less of a burning issue.

Still, while nitpicking, you could ask Dr. Shmuel Gordon, a former jet pilot and air force colonel, who's been studying the army's resource allocation for years. The IAF officers look at the new toy and see wireless Web access; he looks at it and sees a flying white elephant.

"The helicopter was bought based on the old theory that the IDF has to be prepared against Syrian armored divisions suddenly invading the Golan Heights," Gordon explains. But that's old hat: "The Longbow doesn't suit any of the real scenarios that the army should consider - the war on terrorism or far-range attacks [e.g. bombing Iran - G.R.], not even conventional ground warfare."

Of course, the Longbow does proffer special qualities. If we want to conquer London or Montreal, it's the aircraft for the job: the copter's radar enables it to operate in all weather conditions, not just in Israel's relentless sunshine.

Gordon thinks the acquisition of the Longbow Apaches just proves that there's zero civilian supervision over Israel's defense establishment. "If a real ax had been waving over the army's budget, the deal would have been stopped," he insists.

How much does the army's new toy actually cost? Something like five times the addition Shinui demanded. Ten times the extra allocation to the ultra-Orthodox that got so many people so angry. Fifty times the sum needed to add drugs against colon cancer to the health basket.

So much to so few

How much public debate was held about this Longbow? Let's see - right. None. Zero: it's top-secretisn'tit, it's securitydonchaknow, and Israel's politicians have a long 57-year history of kowtowing to every whim of the defense establishment, not arguing the necessity of its demands. Many of them come from there anyway, it's their home.

If some pesky Knesset member or journalist dares to whine, then the entire force of ex-air force officers leaps to its feet: it's as crucial as the air we breathe, they'll explain, toss out a few words about its unique characteristics, and augment their argument with something about "unforeseen threats." They have good reason to unite in their defense for the indefensible: they're all living on giant pensions, some are representing American arms companies, some have cushy jobs advising the army or Defense Ministry.

Whatever they do, every time some new military toy lands in Israel, whether it's a copter or a jet, we hear the same old story that it's paid for by American aid anyway. They tend to gloss over the cost of training soldiers to use it, the cost of maintaining it, and the giant systems that need to be established surrounding it.

Where are the bleeding consciences? Where are the economic experts who unleash their armchair dogs of war against tax policy, investments, privatization, government allowances?

They're preoccupied with pennies. They're busy arguing over National Insurance Institute allowances, unemployment benefits or perks for the ultra-Orthodox. What's a few hundred million dollars for a helicopter - the defense budget is NIS 40 billion anyway.

While the Defense Ministry and Finance Ministry pretend to be totally devoted to slashing military budgets, the truth is the system is heavily coated with flab.

It is time to grasp that the real strategic threat to Israel does not come from Iran, but from inside Israel itself. The underlying concepts and giant expenditure on defense are a cancer eating at the Israeli economy and warping out national priorities.

If you think the only reason for the gargantuan overspending is an unwillingness to entertain unnecessary threats or to be cautious - you are naive.

It is a gargantuan economic system that gleefully supports a lot of people, both from within and without. Like all giant systems, at some point its entire raison d'etre is to grab more budgets, resources and power, regardless of the bigger picture.

The next time the press portrays heart-wrenching front-page stories about cancer patients denied medication or old people subsisting on dry bread, spare a thought for that glittering new gadget that the army is so proud of, that is so gleefully celebrated by the infantile military press corps. And ask yourself if these should exist in the very same nation.