Last year, Yair Lapid launched his campaign with a slogan question: “Where’s the money?” Last night, former prime minister Ehud Olmert provided the answer. The money went toward preparing for an attack on Iran that never materialized. NIS 11 billion went into planning, equipment and training for the mission.
As Olmert sees it, the money was wasted on the reckless “adventurous fantasies” of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak; fantasies that were not – and will not – be implemented. In the eyes of Netanyahu and his supporters, the investment paid off. The world, fearing an attack by Israel, intensified its sanctions against Iran, and the United States embarked on discussions of a military option aimed at destroying Iran’s nuclear facilities. All of this would not have happened without Israel’s military preparations, which demonstrated to the international community that Israel was determined to act alone, and was not just issuing idle threats.
The money is already spent, but Olmert raised an issue that should be at the forefront of the election campaign, and of the public debate that follows. Can and should the country bear the enormous defense budget, which has grown to unprecedented levels during Netanyahu’s term? Can the NIS 15-20 billion deficit in the state budget be closed without cuts to the defense budget?
Netanyahu has stated that he will not touch the defense budget “in light of the challenges facing Israel.” In his outgoing term he showered the defense establishment with funds, with a budget of NIS 60 billion last year. Opposition by the Finance Ministry was trampled or bypassed. Earlier this year a smaller budget was allocated, but the military subsequently received billions in additional funds.
During his first term, Netanyahu had shaky relations with the senior commanders of the military that, while still loyal to his predecessor Yitzhak Rabin, perceived the young prime minister as a reckless rookie. Upon his return to power, Netanyahu strived to maintain good relations with the military, even at the expense of increasing budget deficits. This approach was only partly successful. The army stayed away from open conflict with him and avoided leaks or open support for renewed negotiations with the Palestinians. However, the heads of the military and security establishments refused to support an attack on Iran, and, in essence, foiled his most important initiative. This did not give him pause to reconsider the wisdom of increasing the defense budget.
Calls for cuts in the defense budget, or at least a halt in its expansion, are coming from economists. Professor Manuel Trajtenberg has warned that Israel cannot sustain larger defense spending and that further increases will lead to financial collapse. The former director general of the Finance Ministry Yarom Ariav wrote in TheMarker that while Arab regimes collapsed in the Arab Spring along with their military threats, a conspiracy of silence between the defense establishment and politicians has prevented an honest discussion of cuts in the defense budget. Ariav called for utilizing this opportunity to shake up the establishment, reduce the massive armored corps and reconsider the costly pension arrangements that prevail in the Israel Defense Forces.
Ariav is right. Under Netanyahu and Barak’s leadership, the defense establishment has locked itself into what the late researcher Emanuel Wald termed the “curse of the broken tools,” which refers to the trap inherent in a quest for absolute security. The IDF wants more and more, refusing to determine priorities for what is essential and what is dispensable. Thus, it builds an aerial strike force against Iran, a naval deterrent force consisting of 6 submarines, ground forces with new tanks and armored personnel carriers, a home front defense network consisting of Iron Dome and Magic Wand batteries, as well as a planned naval force to defend its natural gas rigs and some Haredi battalions to appease coalition partners.
The budget cuts required after the election will provide an excellent opportunity to determine priorities in defense outlays, to replace the endless outpouring of funds. However, most politicians stay away from raising these issues. According to Ariav, “Likud-Beiteinu cannot refrain from using scare tactics to recruit voters while Shelly Yacimovich, leader of the Labor party, is shamelessly and cynically avoiding any utterance that may taint her as left-wing, treating the defense budget as sacrosanct.”
Even Lapid, who now knows where the money is, will not touch the sacred defense establishment and limits himself to calls (correct but insufficient) to dismantle the “office for strategic threats” and other useless government agencies, which were set up to provide positions for disgruntled, unemployed politicians. The only party leader calling for defense budget cuts is Naftali Bennet from Habayit Hayehudi, who proposes slashing NIS 3 billion a year, coming from overhead and not from combat units. This is reminiscent of Barak’s call in 1991, when he became chief of staff, to cut funds from anything that doesn’t shoot – a call that was never implemented. It will be interesting to see if Bennet fights for this idea or whether it will be shelved along with other campaign messages.
In the past, defense budgets were cut only when Israel ran into severe economic crises, in the 1950s and mid 80s. The situation today is considerably better, the budget deficit notwithstanding. It is therefore unlikely that the IDF will be significantly challenged to size down after the elections, which is unfortunate.
The defense expenditure and its multiple components are crying out for a serious examination and prioritization to reflect current challenges. Any budget cuts can be used to reduce deficits and for investment in education, welfare and infrastructure. The next defense minister should be a politician who dares to slash the budget. Unfortunately, it appears that Netanyahu is still locked into the costly vision of attacking Iran.