Barak: New budget needed - defense shouldn't be cut

Defense minister says current budget can't take care of defense needs as well as demands of social protests; warns that Arab Spring, unpredictable ME preclude such cuts; Steinitz slams ‘populist suggestions’ to increase spending.

Ehud Barak 311 (R) (photo credit: Reuters)
Ehud Barak 311 (R)
(photo credit: Reuters)
A new, expanded budget is necessary in order to take care of defense needs as well as the demands of social protests, Defense Minister Ehud Barak said on Tuesday, in opposition to the government’s official position.
Shortly after Barak’s testimony at the Knesset Finance Committee, Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz, who spoke before the committee on Monday, slammed Barak’s “populist suggestions.”
Barak to protest leaders: 'I favor increasing budget'Gantz slams proposed defense budget cutsThe defense minister asked the committee not to cut his budget, giving an overview of the major threats Israel is facing: “Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Iran in the background, and the potential for the creation of additional threats.”
He also pointed out that “upheaval in the Arab world has brought changes that are hard to predict. The trials before us are not simple, and no one can know where they will lead.”
At the same time, Barak reassured committee members that “Israel is still the strongest state in the Middle East, from Tripoli to Tehran, and will continue to be the strongest as long as we continue to be responsible.”
The defense minister also emphasized the importance of properly responding to this summer’s social protests, which he described as “one of the most important and exciting things that happened to Israel in recent years.”
“We need a ‘New Deal’ between the government and society,” Barak said, referring to US policies during the Great Depression. “The protesters demand answers from us, as their representatives. We have to find simple answers and not try to whitewash reality.”
In addition, Barak pointed out that there is a “worldwide recession that is already beginning to reach our shores and will change the global economy.”
According to the defense minister, the common denominator between these three factors – external threats, social protests, and a recession – is resources.
The government seeks to deal with these issues without breaking the budgetary framework and cutting the defense budget, Barak explained.
“You can lower the defense budget. No one is saying that there isn’t what to reduce in an NIS 40 billion budget – we can find corners to cut,” he stated.
“But we cannot fool ourselves that these cuts will bring billions that will be wasted.”
The defense minister said that if he could choose where defense funds would be reallocated, it would be to early childhood education, which, in his opinion, is the most important article in the Trajtenberg Report on socioeconomic reform.
In order to deal with the threats and demands the country is facing, Barak suggested that the government spend beyond its budget.
“We will not succeed in filling the minimal demands for the State of Israel – to responsibly take care of defense, and the demands of the social protest, and the world recession – within the current budget,” he said.
“I don’t claim to be omniscient, but from what I understand, we should increase the budget. In the long term, a nation cannot continually spend more than it has,” the defense minister explained, “but at the same time, if your roof is leaking, you fix it first, and then figure out how to cover the expense.
“If a family member is sick, you take care of him even if it’s expensive, because he won’t live if you wait to save money.
The same is true for a nation. In times of crisis, we need to take care of the human infrastructure first,” Barak added.
“Beyond macroeconomics, there are people, groups, infrastructure and defense that we need to give attention to. If we do, then the market will improve.” However, the state should think twice before cutting defense funds, “because life comes even before quality of life,” he quipped.
The defense minister reassured the committee that “even important economists and the heads of major financial bodies warned not to panic or fall victim to uncertainty. The ‘austerity trick’ will only make us lose money.”
Later Tuesday, Steinitz responded to Barak, saying that “Israel dealt with the economic crisis and managed to return to growth thanks to the economic policy of the government and finance ministry, which emphasized budgetary discipline.”
“Populist suggestions that we break the budget are likely to lead to economic deterioration and to mass unemployment,” he added.
Kadima, meanwhile, announced that it requested for its bill to cancel the two-year budget be brought to a vote as soon as possible in an expedited process.
“In order to give a real response to the demands for social justice, it is not enough to make cosmetic changes in the budget,” the party’s request to the Knesset House Committee reads. “A new budget would reflect changes in priorities that will help resolve the economic and social crisis in Israel.”
The Ministerial Committee on Legislation will review the bill, which it is expected to reject, on Sunday.
Nadav Shemer contributed to this report.