Netanyahu decides on more moderate defense cuts

Security cabinet decides to only cut NIS 3b. from IDF budget, taking the remaining NIS 1b. from Treasury reserve.

Ya'alon, Lapid, Livni at cabinet meeting 370 (photo credit: Pool/Emil Salman/Haaretz)
Ya'alon, Lapid, Livni at cabinet meeting 370
(photo credit: Pool/Emil Salman/Haaretz)
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu on Monday decided to reduce proposed defense cuts from NIS 4 billion to NIS 3b. clearing the way for the government to approve Finance Minister Yair Lapid’s 2013- 2014 budget proposal.
“Yesterday, we sat until very late on the defense budget and I decided to bring before the security cabinet and the full cabinet a decision that moderates the proposed cut to the defense budget by NIS 1b., which will not be at the public's expense,” the prime minister said at the start of Monday’s cabinet meeting.
Netanyahu plans to spend an extra billion shekels without otherwise affecting the budget by dipping into the reserves, discretionary funds set aside by law in each budget to allow the government flexibility for unforeseen circumstances.
“I would like to make it clear that the IDF – including its commanders, soldiers and weapons – is vital, in both defense and offense, to Israelis' security,” Netanyahu said, adding that he believed he had reached the right balance between security and economic needs.
“The offensive front is clear. The defensive front is expanding to include the entire home front, the entire State of Israel. And therefore, we need the IDF to continue becoming more efficient, but we also need additional Iron Dome [anti-missile] batteries.”
Defense officials will now have to decide which military programs will be cut. With the budget for defense in 2014 set at NIS 51b., it appears likely that some training programs will be reduced. Earlier fears that long-term purchases of military platforms could be delayed, however, seem less acute.
Opposition leader Shelly Yacimovich (Labor) came out against the reductions in cuts, saying it was strange that the government suddenly found a billion shekels in reserves to prevent defense budget cuts, while they could not be found to prevent increasing VAT or cuts to the Education or Welfare ministries.
“The finance minister must immediately reveal what other ‘reserves’ the government has and explain his order of priorities in how he uses them,” Yacimovich said.
Lapid’s original budget proposal had set aside NIS 8.7b. in reserves for 2013 and NIS 9.6b. reserves for 2014.
“Experience shows that time and again, in practice, the Defense Ministry gets its budget back – not only what is cut, but more than that, without any in-depth discussion,” the Labor chairwoman said.
“Here too, any pretense of new politics melted away, after Lapid led his voters astray,” she said.
MK Isaac Herzog (Labor) also pointed out that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu promised the extra billion shekels would come from reserve funds.
“In the last year, we were told that the economic situation is excellent and the deficit will only be NIS 18b., and the prime minister said the deficit will not have a significant effect on Israeli citizens.
After the election, it turned out that the numbers they sold us were wrong and the deficit is more than double – NIS 39b! Where is the truth, Mr. Prime Minister?” Herzog asked at a Labor faction meeting.
Meretz chairwoman Zehava Gal- On said cabinet members wasted a day and a half on the defense budget, deciding in the end to cut far less than is necessary.
“It’s bizarre that it took a day and a half to give in to the Defense Ministry yet again, but it’s mostly unfortunate that the ministers are wasting their time on a cut that won’t happen. Anyway, the connection between the approved defense budget in the beginning of the year and the real expenses of the security monster is weak,” she said.
NIS 10b. more than the defense budget is spent on security in the average year, Gal-On said, and the expenses are wasteful and lack transparency.
She accused the Defense Ministry of “blackmailing the public with threats to empty the public’s pockets,” and said if it does not stop, it won’t have a country to protect anymore.
Commenting on the day’s developments, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon said Israel faced a complex economic situation, and “we in the defense community are committed to carrying the burden and taking part in the effort to end the large deficit that was created. We’re not a desert island.”
He added that during negotiations, representatives of the defense community insisted that the IDF would work according to a multi-year plan, beginning in 2014 and ending in 2018.
“Undoubtedly, changes are needed in military force buildup, in light of the regional shake-up, and technological changes. The defense industries provide us with tremendous capabilities. We’ll try not to hurt the process aimed at strengthening the army... through spreading out payments for projects over a longer period.”
President Shimon Peres, who was supportive of the unpopular measures that Lapid wants to carry out to stabilize the economy, told Israel Radio, when asked whether the defense budget should be cut, that cuts can be made in every government ministry, but the government must assess its priorities, and the most important of these is the defense of the country.
Peres, a former defense minister, said he sees soldiers risking their lives every day to keep the country safe, and they should not have to suffer deprivation.
Greer Fay Cashman contributed to this report.