There’s one thing you can say about the 2015 elections: they are certainly not boring. What with the huge corruption scandal plaguing Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu, the rapid disintegration of Shas, the meteoric rise of Naftali Bennett and his Habayit Hayehudi party, the burgeoning alliance between Labor’s Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah, and the proliferation of silly political ads, the level of intensity is mounting.
With the election more than two months away, Israel’s political map seems to be on the verge of radical transformation. Too bad the winner has already been decided in advance.
Over the past 60 years, there has been only one consistent winner in Israeli politics. In the upcoming election as well, it is already the uncontested winner: Whoever gets to sit in the prime minister’s chair after the March 17 election, whether it’s Herzog, Bennett or (most likely) a somewhat-dejected Benjamin Netanyahu, will swear allegiance to it – like Israeli politicians on the left and right have done for decades.
We are talking, of course, about Israel’s ever-growing defense establishment.
The cost of war
While Israel’s poverty skyrockets and the cost of living continues to soar, its defense budget seems to be growing by the day – at the expense of education and welfare.
Last August, following Operation Protective Edge in Gaza, the government approved a 2 percent budget cut to all ministries in order to boost the defense budget. In fact, in the past two months alone, Israel’s defense budget for 2014 grew by more than 13 billion shekels ($3.3 billion) – from the previous, record-breaking sum of 57 billion shekels to a staggering 70.5 billion shekels.
In effect, though, it will be much larger than that.
The result of a series of rapid Knesset decisions – the final one, last week, increased the defense budget by yet another billion – some of these additions are directly related to expenses incurred during last summer’s fighting in Gaza. But many have nothing to do with the war. For example, the hundreds of millions of shekels meant for relocation of the IDF’s military bases to the Negev and integration of ultra-Orthodox recruits.
Israel’s defense budget, it should be noted, is shrouded in secrecy. It is hard, therefore, to estimate its exact size and how the money is really spent. It hardly ever stays within its original bounds. In effect, it is usually much larger than the original budget, thanks to budgetary reserves that regularly flow from other ministries.
Don’t mention the defense budget
According to a recent study by the Knesset Research and Information Center, between 2009 and 2013 Israel’s defense budget received 1.9-4.6 billion shekels in unplanned additions every year, on top of the increases included in original budgets. This, in addition to government guarantees meant to ensure that Israel’s defense system never lacks funds, gives the Defense Ministry incredible elasticity – a benefit other ministries don’t have.
This elasticity comes with a hefty social price. Many of these extra funds were originally meant for other projects. This year’s additions to defense, for instance, come from budgets originally intended for social and civic projects like highway construction, public transportation and day-care subsidies.
In recent years, with the radical shift in Israel’s political discourse toward socioeconomic issues, the tension between defense spending and societal aspirations has escalated into a sort of a struggle over Israel’s soul: Can Israel be a real country, where security concerns are balanced against education, welfare and health, or is it doomed to remain an army that has a state?
Unlike the previous election in 2013, one has to look extra hard these days to find Israeli politicians daring to advocate cuts to the defense budget. Neither Herzog, nor self-proclaimed social warrior Moshe Kahlon – and certainly not Netanyahu – talk about cuts to the defense budget. Following a war, that is tantamount to political suicide.
As recently as last May, the battle over Israel’s defense budget was still being bitterly contested. Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz canceled the annual Home Front Command drill, allegedly due to lack of funds, and generals constantly warned that any cut to the defense budget harmed Israel’s security.
Then the war happened. Israel’s social problems, once again, took a backseat to its army’s needs. When generals warned about budgetary shortages, they were immediately placated. “Security comes before all,” proclaimed Netanyahu in August, promising to fix any shortage the defense system might have.
An army with millionaires but no blankets
Public perception and the outraged statements of Israeli generals would have you believe that Israel’s defense budget suffered drastic, crippling cuts in recent years. In reality, though, it was never cut. According to the Knesset Research and Information Center, the defense budget grew by 25 percent on average annually between 2009 and 2013, thanks to midyear budgetary additions.
But even with these budgetary increases, Israel’s army is in dire straits. State Comptroller Joseph Shapira slammed the readiness of the IDF’s reserves this week, ruling that ground troops are so under-trained, some may not be able to operate during wartime.
Yet despite inflated budgets, divisions still seek millions of shekels each year from philanthropists. Many soldiers rely on the kindness of private benefactors, with military officials flying abroad to convince kindhearted, Zionist Diaspora Jews to donate funds for the purchase of blankets and coats for the troops.
Such is the absurdity of Israel’s defense budget. On the one hand, it relies on private donations and is constantly suffering financial shortages. On the other, it is Israel’s chief producer of millionaires: According to a 2013 Haaretz report, most IDF career officers retire (usually at ages 40-50) with pensions worth at least 4 million shekels – five to 10 times the average Israeli pension.
Over half of Israel’s defense budget is dedicated to wages, pensions and benefits. Not Iran’s nuclear threat; not Hamas; not the Islamic State. The pension liabilities of Israel’s defense system grew from 20 billion shekels in 1991 to 258 billion shekels in 2011. And since then, they’ve grown.
This leads to two results: First, while Israel’s expenditure on defense keeps growing at an alarming pace, the army is still underfunded and under-trained; second, this situation has led to the creation of a vast network of former and acting security personnel, a special-interest group that maintains a huge level of influence over politics, society and the economy, and which, over the years, has had a crucial role in downplaying the importance of Israel’s social woes.
This interest group has had an enormous impact on politics and foreign relations, according to the book “Israel’s Security Networks: A Theoretical and Comparative Perspective” (2013), by researchers Gabriel Sheffer and Oren Barak. Its creed: the superiority of defense over every other social goal. Its most prominent members: prime ministers, chiefs of staff, ministers, MKs. Its business: Israel’s perpetual state of impending threat.
This is one major reason why no politician will dare touch the issue of the defense budget. Another is that fighting with the people in charge of fighting is one thing, but during elections and following wartime, no Israeli politician wants to be targeted by generals charging that they neglect Israel’s security. Thus, the perpetuity of Israel’s precarious security situation serves to feed its most powerful elite, and feed the Kraken that is Israel’s defense budget.