Israeli public opinion swings against the bonanza for military spending

November 12, 2013
Sarah Benton

A wounded Israeli soldier is taken off an armoured vehicle after being evacuated from the frontline in southern Lebanon Thursday July 20, 2006. Hezbollah guerrillas wounded three Israeli soldiers in two separate incidents in southern Lebanon on Thursday, the army said. The shock at the IDF’s failure in Lebanon led to vast, unchecked, spending on the military establishment in Israel.Photo by Ariel Schalit / AP.

Less money, more scrutiny: IDF enters new era of accountability

Yes, the defense establishment received an extra NIS 2.75 last week to its current budget, but it’s becoming clear that the post-Lebanon war atmosphere, in which the money flowed without much oversight, is coming to an end.

By Amos Harel, Ha’aretz
November 09, 2013

There are certain similarities between what the American intelligence community is currently undergoing in the wake of the leaks by Edward Snowden and the erosion in public status of the Israeli defense establishment due to its budget battles. In both cases, a security failure triggered a national trauma ‏(for the U.S., the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001; for Israel, the Second Lebanon War in the summer of 2006‏), after which the status of the various defense branches was only strengthened in the two countries. Ironically, it was precisely the serious blunders of their defense establishments that led indirectly to a situation in which those establishments enjoyed almost unrestrained power for a lengthy period.

For their part, the United States’ intelligence bodies, which did not detect preparations by the Al-Qaida terrorists in advance of the 9/11 attacks, were thereafter given unprecedented powers to stick their noses into the lives of the country’s citizens − and even more into the lives of foreign citizens ‏(and leaders‏). So overwhelming was the fear of another World Trade Center-like disaster that no one tried to rein in the heads of the intelligence services, who were the first to recover and regain their footing after the calamitous events.

Something similar took place in Israel. The shock generated by the failure of the Israel Defense Forces to vanquish Hezbollah in 2006 had the effect of convincing the government of Ehud Olmert, and afterward that of Benjamin Netanyahu, to funnel vast amounts of money to the army, in return for a promise from the top brass such a humiliation would not recur. The defense establishment did in fact channel much of the extra funding into training and the procurement of equipment. Along the way, however, the salaries and pensions of officers were also upgraded, and the size of the career army was inflated beyond all recognition.

Public opinion here and in the United States did not follow these developments closely, at least not in the initial years. The assumption was apparently that the people at the top knew what they were doing. The bodies that are supposed to oversee and strike a balance between the demands and the constraints ‏(that is, the White House, U.S. Department of Justice and Congress; the political echelon and the treasury in Israel; the media in both countries‏) − none of these did their job properly, either out of sheer neglect or from fear that they would be accused of bringing about some future security disaster because they had failed to meet the military’s demands.

Last summer, Edward Snowden, a computer expert from the U.S. National Security Agency, peeled away all the layers of protection covering the country’s spy agencies with one fell swoop. Snowden’s revelations revealed how deeply the agencies had penetrated the lives of American citizens by exploiting the technological possibilities afforded by the Internet, while they had forced giant high-tech companies to do their bidding. All the indications are that Snowden is still in possession of enough secrets to release in bits and pieces for quite a few years to come. Each new revelation reduces the trust which the American public has in its espionage agencies and also thrusts the administration of Barack Obama into embarrassing situations with friendly countries.

Thus, the post-9/11 era, the dozen years in which U.S. intelligence was allowed tremendous, and exaggerated, freedom of action is about to end. The intelligence agencies, and the NSA first and foremost, will now have to conduct themselves with greater restraint and under far more intense oversight of the courts, legislators and media.

In Israel, too, an era may be coming to an end. Despite the relative success enjoyed by the defense establishment in last week’s decisive budget talks − after which the security cabinet added NIS 2.75 billion to the 2014 defense budget − it nonetheless seems as if the times are beginning to change. Information about the special arrangements secured by the defense establishment for itself is now leaking out: the 12 percent increase in the size of the career army during that period, even though at the same time, the IDF undertook before the Brodet Commission ‏(appointed in 2006 to examine the defense budget‏) a commitment to reduce its manpower and undergo streamlining; the huge sums being pumped into the noncontributory pensions of defense establishment retirees; and the fact that 40 percent of the annual defense budget is now devoted to salaries, pensions and rehabilitation programs, leaving too few resources for the most critical security needs.

The atmosphere pervading the opinion and analysis columns in the financial press, and their echoes in the social networks, suggest that the defense bonanza is nearing its end. Although it will be very difficult to turn the clock back with regard to salaries and pensions, public outrage and awareness will likely dictate greater transparency and external control over the defense budget.

Holy war

Media discussion of the defense budget was more raucous than usual this year. The economic commentators are associating the defense agencies’ top brass with waste and inordinately high salary terms. ‏(The dubious record of many retired generals in the business sphere after they enter civilian life does nothing to improve that image.‏) The generals, for their part, are deeply offended by the accusations. In fact, they even express displeasure concerning the extra funding they got from the security cabinet this week because there are still other defense-related gaps that cannot be bridged with the budget as it now stands.

This reaction is probably, in part, psychological warfare, intended to show that the IDF’s victory over the treasury was not all that easy. However, it also reflects genuine concern. The army’s higher-ups are convinced that the media and the politicians do not grasp the true gravity of the danger Israel faces, and the fact that when missiles slam into Tel Aviv and Haifa, those people will likely demand to know what happened to the IDF’s might, and insist that it retaliate with full force, as was the case in both the 1991 Gulf War and the Second Lebanon War.

From the generals’ point of view, this is a holy war, one in which the media commentators are duty-bound to adopt the outlook of the institution they are covering. ‏(After the publication of a report about the increase in the size of the career army, a senior figure in the defense establishment − and one of the most serious − lashed out at me, “No problem, you can just go on helping the treasury.”‏) Few of the top brass are actually monitoring the steep rise in IDF pension payments and salaries; after all, that’s a complicated economic issue − and it’s also other people’s money.

The good life

Finding a compromise between these emotionally charged opposing viewpoints is no easy task, particularly amid the cacophony of the current debate. Nevertheless, the conclusion that arises from years of covering the General Staff is that most of its members are out of touch with the socioeconomic situation in present-day Israel. The IDF is pointing, and rightly so, to its impressive efforts in
integrating new-immigrant and lower-class soldiers. It’s also true that serving generals are far from being millionaires. Nevertheless, most high-ranking officers live in detached homes, have had chauffeurs for at least two decades and never have to experience long lines at an HMO clinic or at City Hall. All of them, like everyone who entered the IDF before 2003 and continued to serve in the career army, have noncontributory pensions. So none of them suffers from job insecurity: That’s a concern for non-coms and majors, not for officers of the rank of brigadier general and up.

Overall, the army suffers from too high an opinion of itself, and does not have a sufficiently deep understanding of the discourse in the civil society. Like every large organization, it creates a great deal of unnecessary bureaucratic work for itself, and despite the sincere efforts of Chief of Staff Benny Gantz and his deputy, Gadi Eizenkot, the IDF is showing too little readiness for dialogue on economizing and efficiency.

But this coin also has another side. The security sphere is one of the last realms where it’s not possible to leave overly narrow margins for unpredictable scenarios. The complacency of the politicians and the military in the Yom Kippur War was barely offset, and that at a very steep price, by the heroism of the soldiers and officers on the front lines.

The cessation of training in the first half of the last decade was instrumental in contributing to the problematic performance of the IDF in the Lebanon war, and it also contributed to the fact that, despite the losses and the effort, no significant achievements were attained on the ground. Israel is not in a position to be able to afford another battlefield surprise. Strategically, there is no doubt that the country’s situation has improved in the wake of the developments in the Arab Spring and the collapse of the armies in the neighboring countries. However, it is impossible to ignore the danger that still lurks in any unanticipated deterioration, with even an uncalculated brawl with a small organization such as Hezbollah or Hamas that is liable to tailspin into a war.

The encouragement of an aggressive view of members of the career army, based on their cushy retirement terms, could backfire. In the long run, if the army is viewed as a bloated and profligate organization, it will not be able to attract the best people to career service, not to mention keep them there. The call to make deep cuts in service conditions is usually accompanied by a call to end compulsory service. Both ideas could have the same problematic consequence: a steep decline in manpower quality. At the intermediate level, the state has to pay the combat officers and the experts in vital areas ‏(technology, intelligence, cyber knowhow and others‏) enough to keep top people in the IDF. Love of the Land of Israel by itself is no longer enough.

Soldiers in Unit 8200, the IDF’s technological spearhead. Photo by Moti Milrod

The previous commander of Unit 8200, the central collection unit of Military Intelligence and the IDF’s technological spearhead ‏(the Israeli counterpart to the NSA‏), said not long ago that every decrease of 1 percent in the quality of those drafted into that unit − which now has top priority in drafting into its ranks the IDF’s outstanding recruits − will have an immediate effect on the quality of the “product” provided to the political decision-makers and the General Staff. A similar risk, perhaps even greater, lurks in the combat units: The battalion commander who refuses to sign up tomorrow for the career army is liable to be exactly the missing brigade commander whose effective management could save lives and ensure victory in a battle or a firefight 15 years down the line.

“If people start saying that they don’t want to stay with us because of the erosion in the image of the career army, we are liable to pay a high price in a war,” says a senior officer who is responsible for one of the sensitive sectors on Israel’s borders. “The public doesn’t understand this now, but one by one we are repeating the mistakes that preceded the Lebanon war in 2006. It will be irresponsible not to prepare ourselves seriously. We are not in a position to perform with mediocrity again, in a crunch.”

However, with regard to some of these allegations, the army has no one to blame but itself. The cutbacks it decided on last July, before the added funding was made available by the security cabinet, included a dangerous compromise in the matter of training − almost to the point of stopping it altogether in the reserve units. The General Staff is right about the huge limitations imposed on it by the salaries and pensions that are being paid, and by the costs of the Defense Ministry’s rehabilitation branch. But the generals forget that both they and their predecessors played a part in fostering this inflationary trend. Furthermore, they still prefer to bypass sensitive issues ‏(such as the demand to downsize defense missions abroad or to reduce staff at command headquarters significantly‏) by means of the more readily available solution of cutting back on training. Now that the IDF has been given extra funds, the security cabinet will have to ensure that the money is channelled into the right places.

Some people will say that this is the way of the world: Every budget battle heats up the atmosphere for a few weeks and then things go back to normal ‏(that is, there’s another victory by the defense establishment‏). But recent public statements by Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, Gantz and Finance Minister Yair Lapid revealed the existence of a yawning abyss between their takes on the security situation and the needs of the IDF. This week, Lapid was to have made a first tour of Northern Command. The visit was postponed. It’s to be hoped that a different visit will take place in the near future. Both sides have quite a bit to say to each other.

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