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Israeli Defense Budget Under Attack

Israeli ministers Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett, champions of the social justice movement, face a challenge responding to the defense establishment campaign against budget cutbacks, writes Mazal Mualem.  
Israeli soldiers hold flags before placing them on the graves of fallen soldiers during a ceremony at the Mount Herzl military cemetery in Jerusalem, ahead of Memorial Day, April 10, 2013. Israel commemorates its fallen soldiers on Memorial Day, which begins Sunday night. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun (JERUSALEM - Tags: POLITICS ANNIVERSARY CONFLICT) - RTXYGCO

Finance Minister Yair Lapid and Trade and Industry Minister Naftali Bennett succeeded in forcing the government into a socioeconomic discourse as a direct result of the tent protests for social justice of 2011. Yet their big test is in whether they will succeed in breaking the state budget pattern in which the defense share reigns supreme. It will be interesting to see how the two will react to the demand to increase the defense budget in light of the increasing number of incidents on the Syrian border, the escalating threats on the southern front, and the never-ending Iranian threat.

Both Bennett and Lapid support cutbacks in defense spending in support of reducing the deficit and preventing cutbacks to the social services budget, or so it would seem based on previous statements they have made. As the well-known Hebrew maxim goes, however, “What you see from there, you don’t see from here.”

They are likely to encounter the same knotty dilemma faced by many good people who preceded them. Thus, for example, rockets were fired from Sinai to Eilat only this week, on April 17, an incident that violated the southern vacation city’s tranquility. This incident will certainly be adopted by the heads of the defense establishment in their regular campaign to avert cuts to their budget. The intimidation campaign launched anew before the annual budget discussions is creative, effective and will stop at nothing – and hence is always successful. 

Now that the state budget’s deficit (about NIS 40 billion [$11 billion]) mandates large-scale fiscal retrenchment, the defense establishment also needs to shave about NIS four billion [$1.1 billion] from its yearly budget (some NIS 60 billion [$16.5 billion], about a sixth of the entire state budget).

The scare campaign is under way. Chief of Staff Benny Gantz has already been mobilized, and in an interview with his home station, Army Radio, on the eve of Independence Day, he warned the government, in a scathing tone, against shrinking the defense budget. Gantz, like his predecessors, sounded worried and anxious. “Cutting the defense budget will cost us plenty,” he said. “If there will be an appropriate budget, there will be appropriate results; if the budget will be lacking, the results will be appropriate but at a more painful price,” said Gantz, whose words were later broadcast repeatedly on news editions. The combination of this warning and the patriotic atmosphere that prevails in Israel on Independence Day created the perfect background for the message.

Even more harsh, Gantz, in effect, sketched a cruel equation between the defense budget and the cost of human life. Although he didn’t say it expressly, his message was clear: Less money, more blood, and vice versa. 

Later, we will witness the devil's dance of screaming newspaper headlines displaying the heavy price that will be extracted from us due to defense cutbacks. They will frighten us into thinking that air force pilots will practice less, and senior Israel Defense Force (IDF) officials will warn us in the media of the direct damage to the army’s armament capabilities and routine military exercises. And if all that’s not enough, they will describe the intensifying campaign of threats to the public. The IDF displays excellent public diplomacy skills when it comes to cutting back its budget.

The headlines quoting the chief of staff himself on April 16 on the first page of Yedioth Ahronoth serves the same campaign: “Era of Quiet on Golan Border Is Ended.” All that is true. The threats exist, and Gantz is entrusted with the security of civilians in one of the most threatened countries in the world, so he does what he has to do and fights for his budget.

Yet recent years have seen cracks emerge in the consensus surrounding the defense budget. Those responsible for this are none other than two former defense ministers, Shaul Mofaz and Amir Peretz. They argued that despite the threats, it is possible and even necessary, to make cuts in defense. Peretz presented an equation of his own, the essence of which is that no tank should be at the expense of the elderly. Both men made clear, from firsthand knowledge, that the budget can be reduced without affecting the IDF’s readiness level and its quality and pointed to other budgetary “fat pockets.” 

This could be the great hour of Lapid and Bennett — the first to break the defense budget myth. The two of them, together and separately, hold considerable political power. Both of them are where they are today due to the tent protests that erupted in the summer of 2011 and shifted the centers of power in the political system. Both serve in high-level financial government positions and are members of the diplomatic-security cabinet, and as such, are exposed to the real extent of the threats.

The exclusive forum that they recently joined transformed them not only into partners of the most urgent defense secrets. They also carry the ministerial responsibility of finding solutions for these issues. At this point, they are likely to experience a collision between the socioeconomic agenda they represent in the government and the fact that they are part of the most high-level responsibility-bearing defense forum. It will be interesting to see how they will overcome it.

Mazal Mualem started her journalistic career during her military service in Israel, where she was assigned to the weekly army newspaper, Bamachane. After her studies, she worked for the country's second-largest Hebrew-language daily, Maariv. In 1998, she joined the English-language daily Haaretz, covering local governance, and later, she was appointed chief political analyst for that paper. After 12 years with Haaretz, she returned to Maariv as chief political analyst.

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