Treasury Head Steinitz and IDF Chief Gantz Draw Swords in Budget Duel

Senior treasury officials say that without a cut in the defense budget, it will be impossible to implement free preschool education.

IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz got so upset about the prospect of cuts to the defense budget that he interrupted a Finance Ministry official on Sunday who was briefing the cabinet about the size of that budget, saying, "That's absolute nonsense."

Senior treasury officials say that without a cut in the defense budget, as the Trajtenberg committee on socioeconomic reform has recommended, it will be impossible to implement the free preschool education the cabinet approved on Sunday. The committee recommended that the defense budget be cut by up to NIS 3 billion over the next four years.

Ehud Barak Daniel Inouye Benny Gantz - Ariel Hermoni / Defense Ministry - 09012012
Ariel Hermoni / Defense Ministry

Gantz's comment set off a biting exchange between military and treasury officials, with Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz replying, according to sources at the meeting: "Look at how you're speaking. Bear in mind that you are wearing a uniform."

Gantz retorted: "I am rather more aware of that than you are. Keep respect for the Israel Defense Forces in mind."

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not comment on the exchange, nor did other ministers.

A second flare-up came during a four-hour discussion about accountability and the way the military budget should be monitored.

Security officials pulled out their full accounting arsenal in the effort to oppose a proposal promoted by Netanyahu and Steinitz for increased budget supervision and accountability, particularly regarding the annual disbursement of NIS 24 billion to IDF officers, civilians employed by the IDF and others.

Objecting to the proposal, Defense Minister Ehud Barak said only Finance Ministry officials could possibly understand its details.

He said that although he doubts he is any less intelligent than anyone involved in the discussion, he found it impossible to grasp the details of the proposal, which he said appeared to have been written in a deliberately obscure fashion.

Gantz said he opposes the proposal, though he will accept any cabinet resolution regarding budget accountability, since "the government is my commander."

Gal Hershkovitz, who heads the Finance Ministry's budgets department and clashed with Gantz earlier in the cabinet meeting about the size of the defense budget, said transparency and budget monitoring are essential.

The proposal will save billions of shekels each year in defense spending, Hershkovitz said.