Israel's Chief of the General Staff, Benny Gantz, has told the Knesset Committee on Foreign Affairs and Security that the army faces a deficit of 8 billion new Israeli shekels (NIS) thanks to the government's new budget. The result, said General Gantz, will be a reduction in training and overall capability to tackle external threats.
The budget was approved a week ago by the Israeli government after apparently solving a dispute between the Ministry of Finance and the Ministry of Defence about the military budget. Although, in theory, the government passed a big hurdle towards having the budget approved in the Knesset, in practice Gantz's intervention creates difficulties for Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition.
Gantz told the committee that the budget reduction could even lead to a freeze in the development of a medium-range anti-missile defence system. Despite such a threat, though, there is an increasing feeling in Israel that the economic crisis makes it unreasonable for the military to use what are seen as scare tactics in order to protect its budget.
Israeli newspapers pointed out that the army is thinking about cancelling a lot of reservists' days scheduled for the second half of this year due to the deficit. This will, claims the army leadership, lead to a cutback in training exercises for regular units which will have to cover for the reservists instead. However, sources close to the discussions say that a final decision in this regard hasn't been reached yet.
Nevertheless, according to General Gantz and his senior colleagues, the cuts will put the army at its lowest level of readiness to counter threats to Israeli security; in practical terms, that puts it back to its 2006 levels, when it launched its war against Lebanon. Commentators point out that the latest cuts in army spending are being imposed in the middle of the fiscal year when resources have already been spent and pledged for capital projects, reducing financial liquidity.
Within the army itself, there are some who say that the regular forces are at a high state of readiness and that the damage from reduced military exercises for regulars and reservists will be limited until they are able to get back to a normal exercise timetable in 2014.
According to the military commentator for Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper, Alex Fishman, the army's financial deficit is "catastrophic". He quoted a military source who believes that it is much deeper than the army thought at first and was prepared to confront; no one knows how it will overcome it within two years. Fishman says that the real significance is the reduction of exercises to a minimum as well as reducing the size of the reserve forces and stores. He pointed out that Gantz has ordered activities to be reduced to the absolute minimum possible.
On a wider scale, plans put forward include a cutback in the production of the "Iron Dome" missile defence system and a freeze on other projects funded jointly by the US government. Air superiority is also likely to suffer, as will the production of spare parts and ammunition. Alex Fishman believes that the cuts could lead to a permanent reduction in the size of the Israel Defence Forces, prematurely, in his opinion.
Security sources in Israel insist that it is inevitable that the government will have to step in and help the army by increasing its budget in 2014 to avoid the most damaging effects of the current deficit. In the meantime, army chiefs are looking to companies in the military-industrial complex to subsidise the defence budget.
Left-wing Knesset members point out that the current situation, with known risks and threats to the state, gives Israel the opportunity to reorganise its military institutions. Likud MK Gila Gamlial, meanwhile, insists that the Ministry of Defence must share the burden of budget cuts with other government departments.
The author is a Palestinian writer based in Lebanon. This article is a translation from the Arabic published in Assafir Newspaper, 29 May 2013.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.