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Monday, December 22, 2014

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Cut in defence spending is a leap of faith

Tags: Columnists Yair Lootstein
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Public debate rages in Israel about statements made by influential government ministers and the erstwhile head of the Mossad concerning which measures, military or diplomatic, should or shouldn’t be used to thwart Iran’s nuclear weapon aspirations.

Minister-without-portfolio Benny Begin declared that public discussion of a possible Israeli strike on Iran was “utterly irresponsible,” “madness” that “severely impedes the government’s ability to make decisions” on the matter.

Conversely, retired Maj.-Gen. Giora Eiland, a highly respected former head of the National Security Council, noted that public discourse about a topic Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has declared as most important for the State of Israel is only natural.

Some things are certain. The threat of a nuclear Iran is increasingly ominous, and the world continues to sits idly by, making faltering gestures toward the Islamic Republic, which simply ignores them and plows implacably on.

This debate takes place while another related spat brews. Every fall, Israelis endure squabbles between our Finance and Defence ministries about the latter’s share of Israel’s annual budget, which is always the largest slice of the pie. Finance wants it reduced, while Defence wants it raised.

Annually, Finance makes public its displeasure with what it perceives as a lack of efficient management of the military’s huge appropriations, adding that the thousands of men and women who choose professional military careers are overpaid, especially as they’re allowed early retirement, much earlier than other public and private sector employees.

During these yearly wrangles, the Defence Ministry explains the myriad security challenges Israel faces, saying the IDF has made effective cuts in manpower in the last decade and is constantly streamlining, and that the officers and NCOs who choose to make the military their vocation – sacrificing much personally in so doing – are its backbone.

This yearly Finance-Defence tango usually ends with an increase in the defence budget. However, examination of Finance Ministry stats reveals an almost constant drop in Defence’s share of the entire budget during the past decade. In 2000, the defence budget accounted for roughly 16.5 per cent of the national budget. This year, it dropped to 14.8 per cent and was expected to hit 14.5 per cent next year.

And new players recently entered this fray. In the wake of this summer’s massive social justice protests for fundamental changes in societal priorities, Netanyahu appointed a commission, headed by Prof. Manuel Trajtenberg, to propose remedies to the demonstrators’ demands.

In its report, the commission recommended a series of socioeconomic reforms (none of which have started to be implemented) to be funded in part by a three-billion-shekel a year reduction in defence spending. In 2012, the defence budget was expected to be 55.8 billion shekels (roughly $15.4 billion Cdn). The proposed cut, approved by the cabinet, will slash a whopping 5.5 per cent of the ministry’s annual budget.

The defence establishment’s reaction has been swift. Defence Minister Ehud Barak, who supports reforms but not on his ministry’s account, has called for expanding the general budget deficit to allow both an increase in his ministry’s budget and funds to implement Trajtenberg’s recommendations. 

IDF Chief of Staff, Lieut.-Gen. Benny Gantz was insulted by the cold shoulder he and his objections received from Netanyahu at the cabinet meeting where the recommendations were approved. He has since been expressing his concerns, and while not directly addressing the Iranian threat, he recently spoke of the anticipated IDF budget cuts, noting that “at this time, when the State of Israel’s strategic map is as unstable and as complex as ever… the army has an operational, professional and moral responsibility to maintain preparedness for any challenge.”

Israel’s defence budget isn’t sacrosanct, and the IDF doesn’t operate in a vacuum. It should participate in changes aimed at making life better for all Israelis. Trajtenberg hit the nail on the head when he noted that despite the many security threats Israel is facing, the social security of its citizens is as important as its military might.

Kudos to Netanyahu and his government for taking this leap at a precarious time. Let’s hope their intentions are sincere. There are many skeptics.

One last thing: peace with the Palestinians. Overlooked within the context of the current debates is the possibility that genuine peace might actually diminish the Iranian nuclear threat and support a real defence budget cut.

That might well be a pipe dream, however, and at present, neither side has leaders willing to sincerely advance that leap of faith.

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