Taking Stock / The Israeli Army's Secret Bomb

"By the end of 2005, Iran will have reached the point of no return in its technology for manufacturing nuclear bombs. Three to four years later it will be able to build a nuclear bomb." Mossad chief Meir Dagan, in an appearance before the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee (Haaretz, January 25, 2005).

Goodness, here's another reason to lose sleep at night. It wasn't bad enough that the dastardly Shihab, a missile armed with chemical warheads, can reach every household in Tel Aviv. Now we have nukes looming over the horizon, in the hands of our deadliest enemy.

Why is that point of no return at the end of 2005? Why 3-4 years, not two or seven? And what can we do to protect ourselves against the Tehran nuke?

These are knotty questions indeed, mainly because it's hard to say what lies beneath Israeli intelligence estimates. Prestige battles among the various security forces? Budget wars among the departments? Or, the entire defense establishment pitted against the treasury?

The real question is: Is the defense establishment providing genuinely objective projections? Or are they made in order to preserve its power, budgets, and centrality in the public agenda?

The last time the defense establishment set out to terrify the public was two years ago. One bright morning, as the nation's leaders merrily traded blows over the 2003 budget, Israel's newspapers printed giant pictures of the Shihab 3 on their front pages, alongside grim analyses that had been spoon-fed to journalists by the defense establishment.

The truth is, we have no tools to judge the true significance of intelligence. All the assessments come from entities with vested interests, for whom transparency is hardly second nature.

We shall, therefore, focus our attention on another terrifying bomb hanging over our heads, and it is not Iranian, Syrian or Egyptian. It is pure blue and white, pure Israeli.

That bomb is the pension practices of Israel's defense forces. It is the allowances Israel will be forced to make to all its retiring soldiers and forces from the army, the Mossad, the Shin Bet and the Defense Ministry over the next 30 years.

That bombshell is developing at a speed unknown to nuclear or ballistic science. From the first Gulf War to date, the bombshell of noncontributory pensions to defense personnel has tripled in size to a staggering NIS 100 billion. Billion, not million.

This is not a drill

Meir Dagan and all those other security chiefs would do well to grasp this once and for all. These figures are not intelligence estimates, they are harsh reality.

It is NIS 100 billion that the state will have to pay in the years to come to support people who are not serving the taxpayers any longer.

The defense establishment closely tracks and discusses every littlest military development in Iran, or Syria, Libya, Yemen or Pakistan. But the vast threat that is paralyzing economy development and could ruin life in Israel remains unaddressed.

For instance, nobody has asked a perfectly simple question, so nobody has answered it. Why is the defense budget for 2005 higher than that in 2003, even though in the interim, Iraq was wiped out, Syria is crawling in terror of the Americans and 150,000 American soldiers are sitting in the Middle East?

Dagan & Co, Ariel Sharon, all you sages of the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee: spare us the headlines about nuclear bombs in Iran. After the fiasco of the screaming warnings of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, our faith in these estimates is pretty small anyway.

But we would dearly love some information, or at least a debate, on how the devil one defuses an NIS 100 billion bomb of noncontributory pensions, and how one prevents it from growing any further. Or, actually, have you already concluded that there is really only one solution to this bomb, as there is to the Iranian nuke: Are you counting Uncle Sam to write the check? Or send in soldiers to make it go away?