The IDF in the Toy Store

One can only wonder what impact a modest and almost imperceptible cut of just 2 percent from the defense budget would have on Israel's society and economy.

At first, it was the concerned parents who contributed about NIS 8 billion to the coffers. Next, the uncle from America sent a surprise package containing an additional NIS 2.5 billion, with a promise of NIS 126 billion during the coming decade. And now the children are quarreling - after they have all of a sudden received permission to buy anything they want in the world's largest toy shop.

Thus, representatives of the Israel Defense Forces' branches are surveying the shelves loaded with the best of combat equipment and are finding it difficult to decide on how to divide the spoils. The one with the blue uniform wants the F-35 stealth fighter aircraft, while the one wearing the white uniform argues that it is necessary to purchase modern warships, and the third, dressed in khaki, insists on hundreds of Striker-model American armored personnel carriers and lots of Merkava 4 tanks.

And above them sits a new-old supervisor who coined the slogan "small, smart army." Yet all this is not enough for him; he contends that the army should be enlarged by two additional armored divisions. Further still, he insists that many more billions must be invested in "a multi-layered defense system," to protect us from Iranian missiles, Hezbollah rockets and Hamas Qassams.

What is surprising in all this craziness is that it is happening before our eyes without a demand that the army - whose operational nakedness and logistical failure were exposed only a year ago - account for and explain exactly what it did with the hundreds of billions of shekels it received during the past decade. (Since 1998, the defense establishment has received about NIS 470 billion.) At a government meeting, the chief of staff told the ministers: "I hereby issue a warning that if our requests are not approved, you will bear responsibility." But no one is calling on him to explain how it was possible, with an annual defense budget of nearly NIS 50 billion, for the IDF to go to war with its fighters lacking protective vests and other basic combat equipment, and with its tanks lacking suitable protection.

After the failure of the Second Lebanon War, the IDF's commanders opted for the easy way out - procuring additional equipment and enlarging the army. But the IDF does not need more equipment or a budget supplement - what is needed is a return to the creative thinking that characterized the army's senior officers during the 1960s. Thus, for example, the demand to acquire additional Merkava tanks reflects the conceptual fixation of the top military brass. The likelihood of a war involving the use of thousands of tanks is close to nil, and for those cases that do require the deployment of armor, the IDF's reservoir of tanks is sufficient. The era of armor-versus-armor combat in our region is over. The wars of the future will be based on the use of aerial munitions, ballistic missiles, rockets and small ground-based combat frameworks. This is the lesson of the Second Lebanon War. In this context, it is worth asking Defense Minister Ehud Barak which scenario he is thinking about when he seeks to add another two divisions to the IDF.

At first it seemed like the IDF commanders' demand for a supplement of NIS 30 million for the defense budget at the end of the Lebanon war was exaggerated. Today this request appears moderate. The Brodet Committee, which exposed what it called the IDF's "manipulations" vis-a-vis the policy makers, recommended - in complete contradiction to its findings and analyses - that an additional NIS 90 billion be added to the defense budget during the coming decade. This large increase, which government members accepted without objection, will even grow by NIS 25 billion to NIS 28 billion following the American administration's decision to increase annual military assistance by $600 million to $700 million.

One can only wonder what impact a modest and almost imperceptible cut of just 2 percent from the defense budget would have on Israel's society and economy. It is easy to imagine what could have been done with about NIS 10 billion during the past decade in the field of social welfare, education and infrastructure. But this, of course, will not happen because there is no sacred cow in Israel more sacrosanct than the defense budget. The sick will continue to battle over the basket of subsidized medications and Holocaust survivors will continue to fight for basic subsistence needs, while in the general staff the proponents of stealth aircraft will continue to quarrel with the adherents of the Merkava tank.