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Defending budget increase, Gantz says IDF needs funds to fight off Iran threat

Defense minister appears before Knesset committee, warns Iran nearly a ‘threshold state,’ after cabinet reportedly allocates NIS 5 billion for potential strike on nuke program

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz speaks to the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, on October 19, 2021. (Noam Mushkovitz/Knesset Spokesperson)
Defense Minister Benny Gantz speaks to the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, on October 19, 2021. (Noam Mushkovitz/Knesset Spokesperson)

Defense Minister Benny Gantz appeared before the Knesset’s powerful Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on Tuesday to justify the government’s requested budget increase for the military, warning that the additional funds are necessary in order to prepare for a potential strike on Iran’s nuclear program.

This summer, the government announced that it had agreed on a NIS 58 billion ($17.5 billion) defense budget for 2022, an increase from the previous defense budget, which was set in 2019 and has remained in force as the governments since then failed to pass a new one.

“Israel is challenged militarily on many fronts, and therefore there is great importance to approving a defense budget, following years without a fixed budget, which has — to a certain extent — damaged our ability to act, our ability to have efficient communication, and to build up our forces in a more effective way,” Gantz said.

In his opening speech, the defense minister said the most significant threat facing Israel — and the one for which the Israel Defense Forces most needs to allocate its resources — is Iran and its nuclear program.

“We see that Iran is advancing toward the level of enrichment that would allow it, when it wished, to become a threshold state — and we are making every effort to prevent that,” Gantz said.

“We will invest in our offensive and defensive capabilities, improve our technological superiority, and accelerate our efforts in order to ensure that — despite the fact that Iran is foremost a global and regional challenge — Israel will always have the ability to defend its citizens with its own forces,” he said.

Illustrative: Fighter jets from the IAF’s second F-35 squadron, the Lions of the South, fly over southern Israel. (Israel Defense Forces)

Gantz’s appearance in the parliament to defend the budget to the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, which must sign off on it, came a day after television reports that the government planned to allocate NIS 5 billion ($1.5 billion) for such an attack on Iran, with NIS 2 billion ($620 million) coming from the 2022 defense budget and the rest coming from the current budget.

According to an unsourced report on Channel 12 news on Monday night, the NIS 5 billion ($1.5 billion) would go toward purchasing various types of manned aircraft, intelligence-gathering drones and unique armaments needed for such an attack, which would have to target heavily fortified underground sites.

IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi publicly declared in January that the IDF was preparing fresh “operational plans” for a potent military strike, and in August that Iran’s nuclear progress has prompted the IDF “to speed up its operational plans,” with a fresh budget to do so.

In his speech to the United Nations General Assembly last month, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett declared that “Iran’s nuclear program has hit a watershed moment, and so has our tolerance. Words do not stop centrifuges from spinning… We will not allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon.”

Defense Minister Benny Gantz (right) speaks to the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, alongside the committee’s chairman Ram Ben-Barak (center) and IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi, on October 19, 2021. (Noam Mushkovitz/Knesset Spokesperson)

United States President Joe Biden’s administration has said it is still seeking a joint US-Iranian return to compliance with the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, while acknowledging that it will not wait indefinitely for Tehran to return to the negotiation table.

If it fails to do so, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told his Israeli counterpart Yair Lapid this month that “every option” will be on the table — an apparent uptick in rhetoric after Biden told Bennett in August that Washington was willing to consider “other options” if the nuclear deal cannot be revived.

In his remarks on Tuesday, Gantz said the defense budget was also needed in order to prepare the military for a potential two-front war, to reinforce defenses for the civilian home front, to raise the salaries of conscripted soldiers — which has notably stalled in recent years despite repeated promises by Israeli officials to address the matter — and to provide better benefits to career soldiers.

“We are stepping up and improving our exercises, putting together banks of targets and goals, developing capabilities against Hezbollah and Hamas, which will strengthen the State of Israel’s deterrence and ability to defeat them if necessary,” he said.

The defense minister also discussed a long-simmering contentious battle over the issue of pensions for career soldiers. In order to incentivize people to remain in the military — despite the possibility of earning higher salaries in the civilian world — the IDF allows service members to retire at the age of 46 and receive a significant monthly pension, while being able to supplement that income with a full-time job, along with additional perks in terms of housing and assorted discounts.

A perpetual source of controversy, it has again come to the fore in recent months as a long-fought case in the Supreme Court brought by retired soldiers about the matter required the government to address the issue, which it did by allocating an additional NIS 1.1 billion ($340 million) to the pension fund, despite fierce opposition from the Finance Ministry.

This has led to particular ire from conscripted soldiers, whose salaries are far below minimum wage and have not increased significantly in years.

Gantz said that he, Kohavi and Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman were working to find the necessary budget to increase the salaries of conscripted soldiers.

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