Defence cuts 'madness' say IDF chiefs

By Anshel Pfeffer, September 27, 2011
Israeli soldiers from the Paratroopers Brigade train in urban warfare at a base in southern Israel

Israeli soldiers from the Paratroopers Brigade train in urban warfare at a base in southern Israel

The battle for social justice, demanded by hundreds of thousands on the streets of Israel throughout the summer, is swiftly becoming the battle for the defence budget.

This week, Professor Manuel Trachtenberg, the head of the commission hastily appointed by the government in the wake of the protests, announced sweeping plans for new social and educational programmes, designed to alleviate the financial woes of the middle class. The question now is: where is the funding going to come from?

The Trachtenberg Commission's report, delivered on Monday, recommended that the government entirely subsidise kindergartens for children from the age of three, and a longer school day. In addition, the commission recommended a major reduction in import tariffs on consumer products, a freeze on petrol tax and tax relief for low earners.

The cost of these recommendations is estimated at around 30 billion shekels (£5.2 billion) over the next five years. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agreed with the Treasury's demand that the Trachtenberg Report be financed from the current state budget, without widening the deficit. Therefore there will be no extra money for these ambitious plans.

Even before the report was published, Mr Netanyahu decided to accept the Treasury's proposal that close to half of the costs of Trachtenberg's recommendations would come from the 56 billion-shekel defence budget. This enraged the military.

As officers, the IDF top brass cannot publicly protest against decisions made on the political level. In previous governments, the Defence Minister was usually a figure with sufficient clout within the coalition to shield the army from major cuts. However, Ehud Barak, as the leader of a tiny party, has no power to threaten the coalition.

Instead, Chief of Staff Lieutenant General Benny Gantz invoked his prerogative to approach the Prime Minister independently and had a 45-minute meeting with Mr Netanyahu last week.

It was described as an "uneasy" discussion, in which General Gantz warned against cutting the IDF's capabilities at a time of increasing uncertainty in the Middle East. It was, however, to no avail.

For now, Mr Netanyahu is intent on cutting at least 2.5 billion shekels from defence. "It's madness," said one senior defence official, "in the end they will have to give us back all the money when the balloon goes up. But we will have lost so much in the interval."

What infuriated the defence staff even more was the Prime Minister's decision to give the Treasury greater oversight over the way the military spends its mammoth budget.

"We don't know where they put their billions," said one senior Treasury source, "they won't tell us how much they spend on officers' pay and bonuses. Every time we ask them to economise, they warn that the nation's defence will be harmed. From now on, we will know the truth."

Last updated: 2:16pm, September 27 2011