An unusually harsh punishment meted out to a member of Knesset this week brought into stark relief the difficulty of overseeing — and reining in — the defense budget.

On Monday, MK Omer Bar-Lev (Labor), himself a retired IDF colonel, was suspended — he insists it was a joint decision that he was part of — for two months from the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee after leaking a letter he wrote to Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon about the way the IDF requests funding from the Knesset.

In the letter, Bar-Lev expressed frustration at the army’s habit of requesting piecemeal, seemingly ever-changing budgets every few months, instead of a predictable, annual budget framework like other public institutions.

Bar-Lev related a February discussion in the Knesset subcommittee that deals with the defense budget, in which he questioned the way the IDF asks for money.

“Are you assuming that in May you will need more money?” Bar-Lev pointedly asked Brig. Gen. Yehezkel Agai, head of the IDF’s Planning Department, during the meeting of the Subcommittee on the Defense Budget, a joint body of the FADC and the Knesset Finance Committee.

In his letter to Ya’alon, which he leaked to Channel 2’s Amnon Abramovich, Bar-Lev recounts that Agai took umbrage at the time. “Your question does not respect the IDF, and in your subtext there is the assumption that the IDF is trying… We have no intention of coming to ask for more money,” Agai reportedly responded.

But by May, Bar-Lev noted to the defense minister, the IDF was once again appearing before the subcommittee to ask for more money — and offering dire public warnings about forces going untrained and missile defense systems going unbuilt.

“Either their plans at the beginning of the year were poorly made, or they misled the MKs in February,” Bar-Lev said earlier this week.

Bar-Lev won’t be attending FADC meetings for two months, but not because of his criticism of the army, MKs say. It was the leak itself of the contents of a closed-door FADC meeting that drew the ire of newly installed committee chairman MK Ze’ev Elkin (Likud). The punishment is seen as a message that Elkin won’t tolerate the kind of leaks that afflict the necessarily secretive committee from time to time.

IDF chief Benny Gantz, right, and Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon, center, along with a third official, inspect the IAFs new Super Hercules aircraft, on April 9, 2014 (photo credit: courtesy IDF)

IDF chief Benny Gantz, right, and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, center, along with a third official, inspect the IAFs new Super Hercules aircraft, on April 9, 2014 (photo credit: courtesy IDF)

“If the army thinks people will leak from the committee or its subcommittees, it won’t talk,” noted MK Meir Sheetrit (Hatnua), a longtime member of the committee through several Knessets.

But Bar-Lev’s punishment — Bar-Lev himself has admitted the leak was “a mistake” — is unlikely to buy the army any respite in the committee. In fact, Elkin has gone out of his way to defend Bar-Lev’s substantive criticism of the IDF’s behavior.

“I agree with the content of [Bar-Lev's] letter,” Elkin said Monday. “He noticed something important, and I’ve demanded answers from the Defense Ministry.”

Sheetrit also agrees, as do many other MKs in the committee.

Veteran political analyst Tal Schneider summed up the frustration among many of the MKs on the committee: “Up to this moment, the IDF has not explained why in February, when they were asked to give a framework for the training budget, they vowed not to ask for more funds, and now, three and a half months later, they’re back in the Knesset asking again.”

A paucity of facts

There are many reasons the IDF may have a budget shortfall. The pace of its operations, and their cost, is often set in real time. Israel’s enemies do not always adhere to IDF budget planners’ expectations. Also, American funding for some Defense Ministry expenditures, sums that account for double-digit percentages of the Defense Ministry’s overall budget, has lost real value as the dollar has weakened.

And the army has not been sparing in its warnings of impending doom.

The IDF’s financial woes constitute “a complicated resource challenge the likes of which we have not seen before, and which could have dramatic consequences for the future,” Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz said Monday, before announcing a drastic step: the cancellation of all reservist training through the end of 2014.

“These days we are forced to make painful decisions which affect all areas — reserves and standing army, training in the field and operations on the home front,” Gantz warned.

On Tuesday, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, on a visit to the Palmachim Air Force base south of Tel Aviv, warned that the budget constraints would delay the deployment of David’s Sling, a key mid-range missile defense system being developed jointly with the United States.

Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon visiting the "Arrow II" intercepting missile launcher at the Palmachim Israeli Air Force base Tuesday. (Photo credit: Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon visiting the Arrow II intercepting missile launcher at the Palmachim Israel Air Force base Tuesday. (Photo credit: Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

But for all the rhetoric, and possible justice, on the IDF’s side, the public debate over the defense budget has been conducted with few hard facts — a paucity of information that has led to difficult questions for the army.

The Finance Ministry has insisted, loudly and repeatedly, that the IDF’s budgetary woes were the result of rampant waste and inefficiency, noting that the army had received multiple unplanned budget boosts in recent years. Deputy Finance Minister Mickey Levy flatly accused the defense establishment this week of mismanaging the budget and urged defense officials to “sit down and prioritize.”

As many veteran journalists have noted in recent days, the army’s demand each summer for additional funds, repeated annually without fail and accompanied by warnings of dire threats to the Jewish state, has become a predictable ritual. Yedioth Ahronoth’s Shaul Amsterdamski even uncovered (Hebrew) an August 10, 1997, headline that reads: “Netanyahu: The defense establishment is scaring the country to get more funds.” That was during Netanyahu’s first government, but the language and themes are identical 17 years later, in Netanyahu’s third government.

Indeed, the army’s budget battles with the political establishment go back to the founding of the state. In 1952, then-premier David Ben-Gurion summarily fired IDF chief of staff Yigael Yadin when the latter warned, in one of the earliest glimmerings of the political skirmishes of the present day, that the army would be unable to defend the country without a budget increase.

And therein lies the problem. Given the history of this debate, and the scarcity of publicly available hard data, it is impossible for the ordinary citizen — indeed, for most legislators — to reach informed conclusions about the defense budget.

And that’s what makes the latest dust-up in the FADC so important. The committee is the only mechanism through which the Israeli public, via its representatives, can audit and oversee Israel’s powerful military establishment and its immense budget, and attempt to balance the needs of other government agencies and services — schools, hospitals, roads, etc. — with the real needs of the defense establishment.

A weak Knesset?

But is the Knesset, and more specifically the FADC, up for the job?

“The committee has the legal ability [to audit the IDF budget],” noted Sheetrit, a former finance minister and a founder, during the first Netanyahu government in the late 1990s, of the joint subcommittee on the defense budget. “But the problem is that it is the government [the prime minister and his cabinet], not the Knesset, that actually makes these decisions, and MKs are bound by these political arrangements.”

As in many other areas, many observers (and MKs) are worried that the Knesset lacks the independence to do its job properly. Since the government is by definition composed of the top leaders of Knesset factions that together constitute a parliamentary majority, MKs in committees are rarely free to vote their conscience in opposition to the government’s desires.

The Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense committee, chaired by MK Avigdor Liberman (Yisrael Beytenu), meets on October 15, 2013 (photo credit: Flash 90)

The Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense committee, chaired by MK Avigdor Liberman (Yisrael Beytenu), meets on October 15, 2013 (photo credit: Flash 90)

The current debate over the defense budget is far more likely to be resolved between the relevant ministers — Netanyahu, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and Finance Minister Yair Lapid — than by the institutions of the Knesset legally vested with such powers.

What interest, then, would the IDF have to offer increased transparency to frustrated MKs in future meetings of the FADC?

“Approval for the defense budget is not automatic,” said Elkin, “because unlike with other issues the Knesset is the only body that can oversee these budgets.”

Elkin describes a keen awareness among MKs that they are the only meaningful auditor of Israel’s vast defense infrastructure.

In the last Knesset, all the chairmen of the FADC’s subcommittees joined together to propose a bill, authored by Sheetrit, that would grant the FADC the subpoena powers enjoyed by the Knesset’s State Oversight Committee. The bill would have added to the FADC’s budgetary powers the right to summon defense officials at will and conduct hearings on issues the committee wishes to audit.

The government often belittles the Knesset’s ability to audit its decisions. The FADC itself was without a chairman or regular meetings for six months before Elkin’s appointment last week. Sheetrit’s bill, meanwhile, was killed in the plenum at the behest of the prime minister.

Indeed, another bill, which would make non-classified portions of the defense budget publicly accessible, was defeated in the plenum on Wednesday, also at the behest of the government. That bill, too, was authored by an FADC member, MK Nitzan Horowitz (Meretz).

The Knesset has long struggled to offer a serious counterweight to Israel’s powerful executive. Reactions to Bar-Lev’s letter revealed this week a growing sense in the halls of parliament that the government alone can’t be trusted to carry out the Knesset’s oversight duties in its stead.