Taking Stock / Ehud Barak's Luxury

The cabinet is convening this morning for a second and decisive discussion on approving the state budget for 2009, with debate centering on the defense budget, as has frequently been the case. Defense Minister Ehud Barak has made his position clear: "We do not have the luxury" to cut defense spending, he declared last week.

If Barak were a little more tuned in to the economic reality in Israel, h e would realize that the Israeli economy does not have the luxury to bankroll the luxuries customary in the defense establishment. The budget fight, it should be stressed, is not about defense but rather about defense spending.

But when Barak asks for the floor, the cabinet members should remember that, like most defense ministers before him, Barak serves first and foremost as a defense establishment union chief - looking out for his workers' salaries, pensions and perks.

Although the former IDF chief of staff is known primarily as a defense expert, recent years have shown him to be a great expert on luxury. Many of the generals seated around the cabinet table have no grasp whatsoever of economics and are completely out of touch with economic reality, but Barak presents a particularly serious example: he moves straight from the army into the government, and from the government to Kfar Shmaryahu, and from there to Akirov Towers.

The generals, led by Barak, make manipulative use of the wretched results of the Second Lebanon War, they blame the army's pathetic performance on the taxpayers: You did not give us enough money, they say.

The truth is that the Israeli defense establishment has massive resources: Next year's budget for the entire defense establishment will total NIS 60 billion. The problem lies in the order of priorities - less money for combat soldiers, for basic equipment, and for all those things that are supposed to ensure the IDF's supremacy, and more and more money for those with connections, for megalomaniacal projects, and administration.

Army salaries for people in administrative positions are up to 110 percent higher than for their civil service counterparts. And that's just the tip of the iceberg: The cost of pensions in the defense establishment is double that in the civil service. Once again, we are not talking about combat soldiers, but only individuals in administrative jobs.

During budget debates the generals talk a great deal about the need to reward combat soldiers and to keep the creme of the officer crop in the army, but that is demagoguery for the most part: The defense establishment heads mainly secure raises for the top brass; further down in the ranks the wage hikes disappear.

Reservists, conscripts, and many families of fallen soldiers felt during the Second Lebanon War that the defense establishment had abandoned them; but not just them: Those who help to swell the defense budget, those who fail to call at every cabinet meeting on the budget for streamlining the defense establishment - abandon all Israeli taxpayers.

The first to pay the price of a surge in defense spending are of course the weakest segments of society: the elderly, the sick, and pensioners. Ehud Barak spoke once about "the old lady in the [hospital] corridor. Afterward he realized perhaps that it doesn't jibe with his hedonistic lifestyle and to his and his wife's frenzied pursuit of money and its symbols. So he prefers defense talk.

At this morning's cabinet meeting the prime minister, finance minister, and the rest of the coalition members need to silence Mr. Security and remind the other ministers that the matter under discussion is not defense but rather defense spending - the Second Lebanon War demonstrated that sometimes these are inversely related.