The battle between the Finance Ministry and the Israel Defense Forces was reignited on Tuesday, ahead of Wednesday's crucial cabinet meeting on defense spending.
Three months ago the cabinet approved a 3 billion shekel (853 million dollars) cut to the defense budget over the 2013 and 2014 budget year, but defense officials say supplementary spending is necessary in light of the ongoing threats to Israel's security, noting that at least NIS 4 billion ($1.13 billion) are necessary to cover unforeseen costs.
Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz, attacked the treasury Tuesday for trying to have the army lay off some 4,500 career officers , saying he "won't, under any circumstance, allow a situation in which career officers have their basic rights infringed." Gantz, who spoke at the annual memorial ceremony for Bedouin who have died in battle at the Bedouin Fighter Memorial in northern Israel, addressed the IDF rank and file, saying "any attack on you, any besmirching of you, is tantamount to an attack on Israel's security; anyone who cynically insinuates that the benefits you get are just perks, should be condemned and dismissed."
Gantz stressed that career officers "are civil servants, not employees; they have no union, they don't get tenure and they cannot organize." He promised IDF soldiers that he would not let them be at the mercy of the private sector or the government. "We don't need charity and the employers are not going to communicate with their subordinates through lawyers. We are not going to see headlines in the paper lamenting how the state should help your enterprise because it is going bankrupt; every citizen knows full well that they [IDF soldiers] never go on strike - no matter what happens to their terms of their employment."
"The IDF has carried out a drawn-out, and sweeping downsizing plan unlike any other organization in the Israeli economy. I approved a plan that will regrettably lead to the departure of many who are currently enlisted, but that is inevitable. We will pursue this path as slowly as possible and we are doing this with fairness; we have been carefully deliberating this matter, with the future of the IDF and its missions in mind, cognizant of the national challenges that lay ahead and the socioeconomic reality in Israeli society; we are part of this society."
The massive layoffs have been in the making for quite some time, and they have had army personnel becoming increasingly worried over the fate of their career. The IDF Manpower Directorate has already noticed a tendency among some career officers to "vote with their feet," by electing to discontinue their service on their own volition. As a result, the army has been losing talented individuals who, despite being welcomed in the army, prefer to embark on their own career path. The downsizing is likely to focus on technological units and officers who are in non-combat roles. IDF fighters have so far been largely spared the axe.
A senior government official told Israel Hayom on Tuesday that "the threats have not decreased, they have only changed; there is still a need for the current size of the defense budget so that the system could be stabilized; funds should be diverted to the cyber-warfare apparatus or go toward innovations and combat needs."
Defense officials say Defense Minister Moshe (Bogie) Ya'alon has already agreed to a NIS 3 billion ($ 853 million ) cut to the defense budget and that he planned to follow up on that because he believed it would be the responsible thing to do for the economy.
They warned that the cuts could weaken Israel's defense industries and could have an adverse effect on the economy, possibly causing a spike in unemployment. Suppliers who provide services to the army will also be affected and thus a chain reaction could ensue across the board in the economy. "Those who are going to be hurt are no millionaires; nor are they particularly well off. They are career officers who have no union to represent them and they count on the defense minister and the chief of general staff. Hurting them now will have an effect on the IDF's manpower down the road as well; the public will come to the realization that there is no job security in the IDF and as a result those who are qualified will not pursue a military career."
They noted that some of the taxes paid by the Defense Ministry to the treasury lack any justification. They pointed out that IDF bases paid property taxes to the local authorities even though they were not entitled to any municipal services. The IDF also pays value added tax on U.S. aid and an excise tax on fuel.
At a Knesset hearing this week, Ya'alon went on the attack, saying "the IDF is constantly being attacked. Why? Because it is possible; it has no union, it is not part of organized labor, so it can be easily harassed; 4,500 career officers and civilian employees in the ministry are set to leave; where else can you do such massive downsizing? I tell you that this is a way of abrogating agreements. The defense establishment has agreed to such across the board cuts because it is a responsible organization. When I promise something, or if the army pledges to do something, we stand by that; I have a list of agreements that were signed but never followed."
Wednesday's cabinet meeting, some two months before the 2014 budget takes effect, is no coincidence.
Treasury officials say the IDF and the defense establishment have grown accustomed to obtaining large supplemental budgets every year just before the budget becomes official, but they note that this year the cuts made that impossible. Although the Knesset Finance Committee appropriated another NIS 250 million on Tuesday ($71 million) for defense purposes, the defense establishment would like to get another NIS 4 billion ($ 1.13 billion) in addition to having the take-home salary of career officers raised. It says the defense budget currently has no provisions that would offset the growth in property tax, excise tax, disability benefits, and other unexpected costs. The treasury officials dispute that.
The Finance Ministry's Budget Department held its annual convention last week. Amir Levy, the head of the department, said that the defense budget was too big and was an albatross on the state budget. Meir Bing, who is in charge of handling the defense budget on behalf of the Finance Ministry, told the Knesset Labor, Welfare and Health Committee that if the committee decided to add NIS 4 billion shekels to the defense budget, that would necessitate more cuts. "Another cut is on the way," he said.