A cabinet discussion over defense budget cuts that was supposed to take place on Wednesday was postponed until Thursday amid seething inter-ministerial tensions. While the Finance Ministry is insisting that 3 billion shekels ($850 million) be cut from the defense budget -- as was approved three months ago -- the Defense Ministry is requesting that 4 billion shekels ($1.14 billion) be added to its budget.
The Israel Defense Forces warned that failing to receive additional funds would make the military less prepared to confront current challenges.
"Within the current budget we've been given, we cannot offer the level of defense needed for Israeli citizens," said one of the IDF's most senior officers following preliminary discussions.
"We're frustrated," a second official said. "The Finance Ministry does not understand us and does not understand the risk. They are playing with the security of Israeli citizens. This is not a struggle over the budget, it's over public security. If we keep on going like this, we're going to step into the third Lebanon war without any training."
"The Finance Ministry is behaving like an authority with a state of its own. It is inciting against regular army personnel who earn very low salaries," said another defense official. "There was a cabinet decision which said that budgetary surpluses would be given with preference to defense because we were clearly functioning at a budgetary deficit. The finance minister voted in favor of that decision. Now, officials in the Finance Ministry are denying that while refusing to divulge surpluses. This is a shameful political discussion, not a practical one.
"It's nice to talk about the middle class, but thousands of regular army servicemen have lost their jobs and thousands more in defense infrastructure industries could also be let go. Isn't that the middle class? In the current situation we cannot provide security. We won't have training or preparation and the army is going to atrophy. This is a real danger. You can't say we're avoiding the subject. The defense minister was obligated to slash 3 billion shekels, and he's standing by that because he understands the importance of bearing the burden, but this incitement against regular army personnel, it crossed the line."
The Defense Ministry has been firmly opposed to budgetary sequestration. The IDF has repeated that the approved cuts could augur poorly for military preparedness in the face of external threats or impending missions. Cutting the budget could also have an impact on possible, unspecified, events in March-April.
Defense officials said the establishment had agreed several months ago to cut 3 billion shekels from the budget. Following the cut, the IDF decided to shut down operational squadrons and certain armored units, eliminating operative position for soldiers in the reserves, scaling back training for regular troops and trimming some 4,500 jobs from the regular army.
Defense Ministry and IDF officials have rallied around a central complaint, that the current budget would effectively trim an additional 4.5 billion shekels ($1.3 billion) in 2014, bringing the total sequestration to 7.5 billion shekels ($2.1 billion). Defense officials said the cuts would amount to a "military shutdown," and that having to cancel even a few training programs could be detrimental to levels of preparedness.
"We don't have anywhere else to cut," said an anonymous defense official. "At the end of the process, security levels will be impaired." That damage, defense officials say, would result from canceled training programs for reserve and regular service troops.
The Finance Ministry insists that the issue is not over additional budget cuts, but rather over the additional 4 billion shekels that the Defense Ministry has requested. It wants to cut the 3 billion shekels and set the defense budget at 62 billion shekels ($17.61 billion), still the largest defense budget in Israel's history.
Finance Minister Yair Lapid said the financial brunt of canceling the budget cuts would be borne by the middle class, day care centers and housing programs. The Finance Ministry would be far less able to stem the rising cost of living, he said.
Lapid also cautioned that if defense gets the additional budget, then the Finance Ministry would fail to close budget gaps and combat the rising cost of living.
"The whole discussion about the defense budget was approved by the government and the Knesset, and now the defense establishment has come to us saying, 'We are not coming together around these numbers.' We are setting the budgetary framework; we are not getting involved in how the defense establishment and IDF set their list of priorities," Lapid said.
Finance Ministry Director-General Yael Andorn and budget chief Amir Levi were sent as emissaries to the Defense Ministry to say that if it gets the additional 4 billion shekels, "impending cuts are on the way."
"There is no authority that would not want its budget to be larger, but that's the role of our leaders, including the heads of the defense establishment and the IDF, and they know how to do this better than we do, determining how to best manage the defense establishment so it can offer solutions to existing threats within the budgetary frameworks it has received. Better that additional resources reach citizens -- for health, education, higher education and reducing the tax burden," she said.
The budget chief clarified that the IDF chief of general staff, currently Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, has the exclusive mandate to decide how the army is run, where it needs to be streamlined and how to manage funds most efficiently.
"The IDF needs to be efficient and more economical," Levi said. "The defense establishment could manage with a 58-billion shekel ($16.48 billion) budget."
Meretz chairwoman and member of the opposition MK Zehava Gal-On ridiculed the IDF and Defense Ministry, saying the requested apportionment was rooted in IDF machismo, and would cause the greatest harm to women.
"This morning, another fine example of how the masculine 'bro' culture hurts first and foremost those who really need security, by the true, all-encompassing definition. The Defense Ministry's demands, to inflate its huge budget by an additional 4.5 billion shekels, will cause irreparable harm to health services, education, the police force and welfare, services whose main beneficiaries are women," she said.
She accused the defense establishment of using "threats and intimidation to extort increasing funds."
"The government surrenders, abandoning other important areas, no less important for the security of our citizens, mainly ensuring civil rights," she said.