Strategic Affairs and Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz (Likud) on Saturday harshly berated the defense establishment for using “undemocratic” means and “manipulating” the public to try to pressure the government into allotting it a larger budget.
Steinitz, who preceded Yair Lapid as finance minister in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s previous administration, warned that it was “undemocratic” for the military to involve itself in the affairs and decision-making processes of the higher echelons of government.
Though Steinitz admitted that there was a “budget problem,” he said it didn’t justify the army’s recent “maneuvers,” such as statements which disclosed sensitive information about its budget and operations to the public — and to Israel’s enemies, who he warned might be listening.
Speaking in Beersheba, Steinitz accused the defense establishment of “manipulating” the public to support its efforts to secure more funding.
After he spoke, the strategic affairs minister was criticized by defense and military officials, who accused him of trivializing the scope of the crisis that threatened the defense establishment — and of the steps it had taken to improve its efficiency and cut costs.
Early Saturday afternoon, sources close to Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon (Likud) said it was “irresponsible” of Steinitz to criticize the IDF “and those who serve in it.”
The sources added, “In the meantime, before he preaches to others about austerity, we would advise [Steinitz] to first examine the exorbitant number of times he himself has traveled abroad.”
The defense establishment has taken several steps to pressure the state to add another NIS 2.9 billion ($830 million) to its budget. On Tuesday, the Israeli Air Force announced in an unprecedented move that it would cancel all flight drills for its pilots.
The air force informed its squadron commanders that as of Sunday, all training flights, including drills for reserve soldiers, would be canceled. Flight school training wouldn’t be affected by the move.
The decision, backed by Ya’alon and IDF Chief of General Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, was part of a series of steps the defense establishment plans to take to brace for a shortfall, which generals say amounts to billions of shekels and, they warn, could have grave ramifications for Israel’s ability to defend itself.
Critics have been accusing the army, faced with the treasury’s demand that it streamline its operations, of scaling back essential training in order to pressure the government into acceding to its budgetary demands.
Other arms of the IDF were also preparing to take similar steps, with Defense Ministry Director General Dan Harel, himself a reserves officer, warning that the budget allocated to the IDF for 2015 would not enable the army to “start the year.”
“We’ll have money for rehabilitation and retirement, because that is the law, but we won’t have money for defense,” Harel said.
Last Monday, Gantz announced the cancellation of all reservist training through the end of 2014. He said the IDF’s woes constitute “a complicated resource challenge the likes of which we have never seen, and it could have dramatic consequences for the future.”
He warned, “These days we are forced to make painful decisions that affect all areas — reserves and standing army, training in the field and operations on the home front.”
Ya’alon, during a visit to the Palmachim Air Force base south of Tel Aviv last week, 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.
The Finance Ministry has been insisting, loudly and repeatedly, that the IDF’s budgetary woes are 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 of mismanaging the budget and urged defense officials to “sit down and prioritize.”
Haviv Rettig Gur contributed to this report.