Steinitz Deftly Shifts Spotlight to Defense Cuts

Much of yearly argument between army and treasury is devoted to transparency and defense establishment's efforts to avoid disclosing spending habits, but as State Comptroller's report from a few years ago determined, the Finance Ministry has a hand in that.

The top defense establishment officials got it wrong if they thought for a moment that the social protest died at the start of September when the tents on Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv began to disappear. The Trajtenberg committee report and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's quick decision to slice NIS 3 billion from the military budget next year show that the tents have merely moved on: Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz efficiently transported them from Rothschild to the heart of the main lawn of the Kirya defense compound. With the summer's protesters providing a tailwind, the defense budget was targeted as the main source for covering the costs of their demands.

As always, the Israel Defense Forces sounded slightly surprised, almost insulted, in its response. Addressing "closed forums," Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz reportedly warned on Sunday that the cuts would drag the army back to the pre-Second Lebanon War state of unpreparedness. He should know. He was there, commander of the Ground Forces, whose units ceased training almost completely in the years before the 2006 war and paid dearly for it.

On Monday, senior Defense Ministry officials warned that the planned budget cuts would lead to "Winograd 2," in a reference to the panel that examined the failures of the 2006 war. That's dangerous territory: Even if the accepted wisdom in the media is that defense budget cuts are in order, no cabinet minister wants their name associated with future military unpreparedness as a result.

The IDF's argument has some merit. The shocks rippling through Arab states signal a protracted period of uncertainty. But any visit to an IDF rear base reveals significant waste and large numbers of soldiers with little or nothing to do. It's no wonder that successive commanders of the Planning Branch who, while in uniform, were assigned to explain the impossibility of budget cuts to the media, changed their tune after reentering civilian life.

Much of the annual argument between the army and treasury is devoted to transparency and the defense establishment's efforts to avoid disclosing its spending habits, but as a State Comptroller's report from a few years ago determined, the Finance Ministry has a hand in that.

In fact, the transparency disagreement may be missing the central problem - the flimsy supervision by the civilian establishment over the IDF's approval of budget-devouring projects, from the F-35 fighter jet to the Nemer armored personnel carrier. Before Trajtenberg, and presumably after him as well, the expensive project that the army initiated and did not receive has never reached fruition.

Sitting more or less quietly on the sidelines of the dispute, for now, is Defense Minister Ehud Barak. He is settling for the argument that the state budget ceiling can be broken, and the budget deficit temporarily increased, in order to satisfy some of the social protest's demands without compromising security.

It may be that Barak is merely choosing not to tangle with Netanyahu, his close political ally, for now. Perhaps he believes, after so many similar fights in the past, that some strategic emergency requiring a special defense allocation will pop up soon.