Barak digs in heels against defense cuts

Sept. 13, 2011 at 1:07 PM   |   0 comments

TEL AVIV, Israel, Sept. 13 (UPI) -- Crises with Turkey and Egypt are likely to increase pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's government to increase the defense budget, even though his office says it would have to be reduced to boost social spending after nationwide protests.

Netanyahu is facing growing criticism of his hawkish policies from across the political spectrum -- from his traditional opponents on the left to senior figures in the military and intelligence establishment.

He is being widely blamed for Israel's growing rift with Turkey, once a strategic ally, and the Jewish state's growing international isolation over his hard-line refusal to make concessions to the Palestinians, who plan to declare statehood at the United Nations in the coming days.

The recent sharp deterioration in relations with neighboring Egypt, another strategic ally, following the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak Feb. 11 in a popular pro-democracy uprising, is adding to the pressure on Netanyahu and his right-wing coalition.

Egypt signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979 but the majority of Egypt's 82 million people bitterly oppose it. Long-suppressed, anti-Israel anger has spiraled since the downfall of Mubarak, an ardent supporter of the pact.

In this political climate, with Israel's security threatened to a degree not seen for many years, not least from Iran, the national debate over the defense budget has intensified sharply.

This has been accentuated by the unprecedented wave of protests against the high cost of living that are in large part caused by high defense spending.

Eyal Gabai, director general of the Prime Minister's Office, said last week that the defense budget would have to be slashed "considerably" as part of the government's effort to lower the cost of living.

The Jerusalem Post reported that the 2011 defense budget was pegged at $14.42 billion but has received a number of supplementary hikes amounting to $1.41 billion.

"There must be a cut in the defense budget," Gabai said, noting that national priorities are being redefined. "The prime minister and the defense and finance ministers agree on this."

He gave no figures but earlier this month Netanyahu promised major spending programs to still the recent surge of discontent that sent hundreds of thousands of disgruntled Israelis into mass street protests.

Shaul Mofaz, a former general and chief of staff who now heads Parliament's powerful Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, supports cutting the defense budget and last month refused to approve a Defense Ministry request for an additional $175.27 million.

Ministry officials accused Mofaz of "holding the defense budget hostage."

He responded: "The defense budget is significantly larger than any other ministry's. I will not accept the Defense Ministry treating the committee like a rubber stamp."

Defense Minister Ehud Barak, a former prime minister and military chief of staff, declared Sept. 1 the defense budget couldn't be cut to meet social demands.

"Life itself precedes quality of life," he said, stressing that an investment in Israel's security is an "insurance policy … There is no possibility to implement these cuts to assist the public without exposing Israeli citizens to danger."

To counter these threats, Netanyahu and Barak have sought to fashion an ambitious five-year plan for an expanded defense budget.

Few details have emerged but it seems next year's defense budget will be kept at current levels to meet protesters' demands.

The Israeli military "prides itself on having managed to stick to the budget for the past four years, something it didn't do previously," observed commentator Amos Harel in the liberal daily Haaretz.

"But the inability to plan for the long term undermines the army's effectiveness and strength."

Netanyahu, along with his even more right-wing foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, have been suspected of deliberately creating security crises to justify high defense spending.

But Harel observed that while the incendiary Lieberman "is enthusiastically playing with fire … it is doubtful that Netanyahu will choose to initiate a deliberate flare-up when he doesn't know how it will end."

Meantime, Israel's security looks to be increasingly precarious as anti-Israel anger swells in Egypt, where a mob stormed and ransacked the Israeli Embassy Friday.

The swelling crisis with Egypt, the worst in three decades, means Israel's southern front, unmanned for 30 years, will have to be fortified again, and that gives supporters of a large defense budget an edge.

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