Analysis: Defense's financial brinkmanship

The estimated sum for post-war rehabilitation, NIS 30b. is just an opening figure.

rocket haifa 298.88 (photo credit: Associated Press)
rocket haifa 298.88
(photo credit: Associated Press)
The IDF's demand after the war in Lebanon for an extra NIS 30 billion to replace damaged equipment, replenish emergency supplies and develop new weapon systems for the next war shouldn't be taken at face value. No one in the Defense Ministry really believes for one moment that they'll get anywhere near that sum. But we're in the Middle East and bizarre rules apply. NIS 30b. is just an opening figure. That doesn't mean we can be complacent about the future of the defense budget. On the contrary, the generals' cavalier attitude to the taxpayers' money is at the root of the lack of the army's accountability to civilian control. They can bandy around figures at will because there's very little chance that anyone outside the army will make sure the money allocated will be put to proper use. Take just one example: last summer's disengagement. The IDF was budgeted approximately NIS 3b. for its role in the evacuation of the settlements in Gush Katif and northern Samaria. When this sum was originally allocated, implementation of the plan was supposed to take 12 weeks, but in the end the whole withdrawal took 10 days. The leftover change didn't find its way back to the Treasury's coffers. Every government department has its "budget referent" in the Finance Ministry, whose job it is to make sure that the financial needs of the department are met and that the ministers and officials don't get too much money to play around with. As the annual budget discussions come around, there's a tug-of-war: The minister and his advisors claim that there's no way they'll manage to carry out their vital tasks with the such a pittance, while the "Finance Ministry boys," who many believe run the country, insist that they've been wasting money for years and dictate priorities for everyone else. Officially, the same arrangement exists for the Defense Ministry. But who can tell the guardians of the nation's existence that they don't need another squadron of F-16Is at $50 million apiece. Let alone say that they might be better off spending their money on new sleeping bags for reservists rather than another submarine from Germany. One of the main conclusions already being made from the problematic handling of the fighting in Lebanon is that the IDF has been neglecting its ground forces, especially the reserves, in favor of the "strategic arm," the air force and navy, which have both made an immense technological leap over less than a decade. At the same time, infantry and armored battalions were closed down or "frozen," without their annual refresher training course and, in their emergency supply depots, kit bags that last had been opened in the 1980s being left to rot. Now the high command wants to have it both ways: keep all the new missile boats and strategic bombers - including those that are still on order and won't arrive for another two years - and bring all the field units and their emergency supplies back up to speed. The NIS 30b. price-tag is obviously outrageous - especially as the IDF, until the end of last week, was at pains to emphasize that the problems highlighted by reservists weren't as serious as the press was making out, nor were that many tanks and AFVs hit in Lebanon. But the claims being made by various economic experts that giving in to even part of the military's demands would "push Israel back two decades" are also outrageous. If anything, this war has proved the basic stableness of Israel's economy, which held up well despite the month of warfare. The government has enough reserves to open up the budget and fund both the IDF's needs and an ambitious rebuilding plan for the North. The Finance Ministry boys are in need of a new mind-set as much as the generals are. The IDF is clearly in need of a new set of priorities. But if it wants the necessary funding, it will have no choice but to open itself to a hitherto unknown degree of transparency and scrutiny. Perhaps some good might still come of Amir Peretz's tenure as defense minister if he realizes that the country has a wide variety of needs and, even if he won't insist on it, his rebellious party members are going to make the generals give a thorough accounting for where every shekel is heading.