Don't stint on defense

Security may depend on the economy, but economy also depends on security. We cannot neglect either.

IDF artillery 224.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
IDF artillery 224.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
In recent years, an annual ritual has repeated itself. The largest component of the national budget - that for national defense - is cut, and generals make dire predictions regarding how this will harm our national security. The politicians ignore these warnings, or restore part of the cuts, and life goes on. This ritual was interrupted twice in the past decade: during the height of the Palestinian terror war from 2000 to 2004, and again during the Second Lebanon War. In both cases, the defense budget was increased to compensate for the cost of fighting and to make adjustments for new threats and developments. But now the debate is again reverting to form. In the current case, former deputy defense minister Ephraim Sneh (Labor) went so far as to vote against the budget in the committee and threatened, for the first time in 15 years, to vote "No" in the full Knesset unless some NIS 1.5 billion was added to the defense budget. "The formulation of a contingency plan to counter the Iranian threat is being delayed due a lack of funding," Sneh said, adding that "only the cabinet, scheduled to vote on the budget this coming Thursday, can prevent a severe failure." Sneh did not spell out what programs to counter Iran were being underfunded. He did note that the Home Front Command budget had been severely cut, meaning that gas masks would not be manufactured and distributed and that threatened communities would receive less money for shelters and other protection measures. He claimed that correcting these shortfalls would cost only 0.5 percent of the national budget, which was in surplus this year. For its part, the Finance Ministry claims that any departure from the budget framework would threaten to harm economic growth, which is critical to funding the entire budget, including defense needs. Further, the Treasury points to the recommendations of the Brodet committee on the defense budget, which advocated a multi-year budget that would take into account US commitments to increase military aid to Israel, and internal savings in the Defense Ministry budget. Former IDF general and national security adviser Giora Eiland agrees that the defense budget process needs fixing. He backs the Brodet recommendations and complains that government ministers have no real basis for evaluating the budget except the arguments of interested parties, namely the Defense and Finance Ministry staffs. As a result, they have no way of knowing where money can be saved and which functions are underfunded based on independent analysts who are knowledgeable about defense needs. As flawed as this process is, and although much waste no doubt exists in the defense budget, it would seem foolish to ignore Sneh's warnings. We saw from the Second Lebanon War that the IDF does not necessarily anticipate where funding is most needed, and tends to skimp on "readiness," namely the costly business of training and making sure that units are properly equipped for a possible war. It is surprising to hear from Sneh, given the obvious and heightened concern over the Iranian threat, that even this area may be underfunded. Without access to classified materials, it is difficult for members of Knesset, let alone the press and public, to evaluate this claim. But Sneh himself is a respected expert both on the defense budget and the Iranian threat, so his concerns should not be taken lightly. This is a time when Israel cannot afford to underfund defenses that might be needed in a wide range of contingencies. We must be prepared for three types of war at the same time: the ongoing anti-terrorist fighting that continues in Gaza and the West Bank; the risk of more conventional battles recurring against a rearmed Hizbullah in Lebanon, or even possibly against Syria; and a conflict with Iran. The shelling of the North during the war in Lebanon also illustrated that the readiness of the home front for all these types of conflicts must not be neglected, either. The Treasury is right that the budget framework must not be broken, but this does not mean that defense should be underfunded. The Brodet committee recommendations for savings and for a more rational budget process should be implemented, as should broader recommendations for reforming the economy and generating faster economic growth. But though security does depend on the economy, the economy also depends on security. We dare not neglect either of them.