Netanyahu proposes slashing civilian budgets to fund anti-Iran defense

‘We will have to change our priorities,’ Netanyahu tells Jewish Agency leadership; also vows to increase Diaspora Affairs ministry’s budget to fight anti-Semitism

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

PM Netanyahu speaking at the Jewish Agency's Board of Governors in Jerusalem, October 28, 2019. (Dudi Salem)
PM Netanyahu speaking at the Jewish Agency's Board of Governors in Jerusalem, October 28, 2019. (Dudi Salem)

Warning of the massive costs involved in fending off Iran’s increasing belligerence, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday said that Israel would have to “change its priorities” and move more resources from civilian purposes to the military.

The threats emanating from Tehran, which he described as a dramatic change of the regional balance of power, also required a “broad-based national commitment to arm the State of Israel,” Netanyahu said, calling on Blue and White leader Benny Gantz to form a unity government with his Likud party.

“We’re at a pivot point. It has to be understood,” he told Jewish leaders during a conference in Jerusalem.

“We’re faced with an evil empire, it’s called Iran. Iran seeks to destroy Israel. It says so openly. It works for this incessantly,” the prime minister told the Jewish Agency’s Board of Governors, which is currently convening in Jerusalem.

He repeated his warning, also made earlier in the day in a meeting with US Treasurer Steve Mnuchin, that Iran was seeking to place missiles around the region to be able to hit Israel and other areas.

“Iran wants to use Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen as bases to attack Israel with statistical missiles and precision-guided missiles,” he said, using a term that refers to imprecise munitions. “That is a great, great danger.”

An Iranian woman looks at Taer-2 missile during a street exhibition by Iran’s army and paramilitary Revolutionary Guard celebrating ‘Defence Week’ marking the 39th anniversary of the start of 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, at the Baharestan Square in Tehran, on September 26, 2019. (STRINGER / AFP)

Strengthening Israel’s defensive capabilities will require shifting “money from the civilian areas to the military areas,” said Netanyahu, who is also defense minister.

“We will have to change our priorities,” he went on. “Because the first thing we must do is ensure the security, the safety of the Jewish state. It is well within our powers. We have the ingenuity. We already developed what we need — offensive and defensive weapons. But we need a lot.”

Israel already spends 4.3 percent of its budget on military expenditures, among the highest in the world, according to the World Bank, though the figure has steadily decreased since the mid-1970s. It also receives some $3.8 billion annually in foreign assistance from the US.

Netanyahu did not say where the budget cuts should come from, but said making the moves would require a “very broad-shouldered government,” calling on Gantz to forge a unity government with a rotational prime ministership.

“There’s no reason why we can’t have a broad national unity government in 24 hours,” he said.

Netanyahu has cited an unspecified looming national emergency tied to tensions with Iran in urging Gantz to quickly agree to a unity deal.

“We must unite. Because in the face of danger, we unite,” he said Monday. “This is not spin… This is a real thing that is happening as the power balance in the Middle East changes. We must be strong. And to be strong, we have to be united as a people — united in spirit; united in our quest to secure the future of the Jewish state, of the Jewish people. But to be strong, you have to be strong militarily.”

Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz (L) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meet at IDF headquarters in Tel Aviv, on October 27, 2019. (Elad Malka)

Netanyahu said he had a “good conversation” with Gantz on Sunday evening. But, “there are forces in Mr. Gantz’s party — specifically [Blue and White no. 2] Yair Lapid — who don’t want a unity government, and Benny Gantz has to summon the courage and the leadership to overcome them.”

Netanyahu also mentioned that he appointed himself minister for Diaspora Affairs this week, promised to use the office’s budget to protect “Jewish communities from the rising scourge of violent anti-Semitism.

“It’s overdue,” he added.

His predecessor in the role, New Right leader Naftali Bennett, is an outspoken right-wing rival. Netanyahu fired Bennett in June, and the post has been vacant since.

In addition to being prime minister and defense minister, Netanyahu also currently serves as health minister (the office is run in practice by Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, whose ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism is opposed to holding full ministerial posts) and acting minister of labor, social affairs and social services (a post he assumed in August, after the incumbent Haim Katz quit due to corruption allegations).

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