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Why Netanyahu wants more money for security

Top defense experts estimate that the new 2030 Security Concept was designed not as a serious tool to protect Israel against its threats, but as a means to preserve Benjamin Netanyahu’s image of "Mr. Security."
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives to the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem,  July 29, 2018. Sebastian Scheiner /Pool via Reuters *** Local Caption *** - RC1F49FF0D00

On Aug. 15, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu presented the “2030 Security Concept” to the Diplomatic-Security Cabinet. He had labored over this document for many long months, and according to Netanyahu’s close associates, he wrote it after conferring with past and present high-ranking security system experts.

This is only the third time that Israel defines the “security concept” of the state. The first to formulate it was Israel’s founder and first prime minister, David Ben Gurion. While Ben Gurion served as prime minister for many years, Netanyahu stands to overtake him as the person who served the longest in that capacity. The second time the concept was changed was in the previous decade, by a special committee headed by Minister Dan Meridor in 2006.

Netanyahu’s current document constitutes a dramatic change regarding the Israeli security concept, in total contradistinction to the policy that was reflected in the defense budgets of the past 70 years of the State. Just as Netanyahu completely changed Israeli policy vis-a-vis the Palestinians (as described in an earlier Al-Monitor article), now he comes to change prevailing conceptions by transforming basic defense concepts.

Till now, Israel aspired to lighten the burden of the defense budget on its gross national product (GNP); this was done at a snail’s pace, perhaps, but with determination. The ultimate goal was to develop a thriving, creative and free economy in which most of the GNP would not be gobbled up by defense needs. The continued weakening of the threats against Israel contributed to the process. Peace agreements with Egypt (1979) and Jordan (1994), the dismantling of the Syrian threat, and significant weakening of Iran in the Trump era were supposed to allow Israel to lower the defense burden even more and, instead, invest in economic growth, welfare and education.

Netanyahu, a pessimist who always needs external pressures and demons that comprise existential threats on the state, reads the situation differently than everyone else. According to the prime minister, the “backlog of threats” facing Israel is only growing and developing over the years. He has turned the equation upside down: Instead of lowering the defense budget in order to encourage economic growth, he raises the defense budget to give the economy safer conditions in which it can grow quickly. He believes that a bigger defense budget would neutralize the unstable defense situation. Thus, the economy would have better chances to grow. This is Netanyahu’s upside-down world.

Netanyahu’s 2030 Security Concept document was described by a defense source who was speaking on condition of anonymity as “shallow, superficial and political.” In contrast to another security concept document, recently prepared by Maj. Gen. Yair Golan at the request of Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, Netanyahu’s document does not present a clear concept of "building up the necessary force," nor clear principles for "operation of force." Instead, it is mainly a laundry list of threats and the budgets needed to confront them. An Israeli source with expertise in this sphere told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity that Netanyahu’s document is “one of the great bluffs in Israel’s security history.”

Netanyahu’s associates said vaguely that he had consulted with past and present high-ranking security system experts. In fact, Netanyahu did not consult with his Cabinet members before writing the document; neither did he update Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot or engage in a thorough, preparatory study. The document he prepared caught the entire system by surprise and is perceived as a political statement more than a defense plan. Evidently, Netanyahu was affected by Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon’s recent statement that he would work to increase the defense budget by 30 billion shekels ($8.3 billion) in the next decade. (Afterward, Kahlon made sure to hang up large billboards throughout the country with the caption “Kahlon, Your Security.” So, if Kahlon adds 30 billion shekels to security, then Netanyahu will add 40 billion shekels [$11 billion]. This is the additional sum in Netanyahu’s document, to be added in phases until 2030.)

There’s more: Netanyahu’s efforts in trying to come to a security arrangement with Hamas are viewed by his electorate as a capitulation to terror and a violation of his own election promises. This, in turn, constitutes a real threat to the prime minister’s carefully constructed image as the ultimate “Mr. Security.” Therefore, Netanyahu hastily prepared his own “security concept.” This is also why he was quick to announce that the new security concept represents his current coherent worldview — a different one (upside down in fact) than what everybody was accustomed to over the years.

Netanyahu proclaimed that from now on, the defense budget will be linked to Israel’s yearly GNP and constitute at least 6% of it. This linkage of the national product to defense expenditures is unprecedented. It is antithetical to the clear aim of trying to lower defense expenditures, relative to the national product. Netanyahu emphasizes that this new approach is what will lead to accelerated growth and continued economic development — and not lowering defense expenditures. This opinion runs counter to those of most economists, but Netanyahu likes being the underdog. At this point in time, when Netanyahu has reached an all-time high of hubris and is at the height of his popularity, criticism does not frighten him. The contrary is true; criticism builds him up. Everyone says that defense expenditures must be lowered for the benefit of education, welfare and development? The prime minister says that defense expenditures should be increased because only a powerful Iron Dome defense system can provide a stable foundation on which the economy can grow and develop.

How will Netanyahu use the “surplus” money for defense? He plans on using it for major power-level cyber capabilities and for turning Israel into a powerhouse in this sphere — defensive as well as offensive. Additional venues for investment are the completion of security fences and obstacles surrounding Israel; investing in anti-missile/anti-rocket defense and purchasing more missile-targeting systems; continued protective measures on the home front against rocket attacks and earthquakes; strengthening offensive capabilities (powerful rocket system); and sophisticated armament for the air force.

All this sounds wonderful. However, numerous defense experts say that Netanyahu has one simple goal in mind: He is interested in strengthening his own image as Mr. Security — not in strengthening Israel’s security. He is not afraid of the escalating threats against Israel (for the prosaic reason that the threats are weakening, not escalating); instead, the threats that worry him are the political threats clouding his good name.

Netanyahu has always boasted that he is the first to discern potential, existing threats — including the ones that don’t exist. The “2030 Security Concept” that he recently presented to the Cabinet strengthens this well-known ability and worries his political opponents.

“Evidently, he intends to remain here till year 2030, at least,” a political rival told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. The person didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

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