Paying for Israel’s wars

July 28, 2014
Amid renewed fighting between Israel and the Palestinian territories, The Post’s Ishaan Tharoor offers a background on the decades-old conflict and the current escalation. (Davin Coburn/The Washington Post)

While the mounting human losses in the current battle between Hamas and Israel rightly preoccupy the world, the financial costs of Israel’s three-week long war with Gaza are also astonishing. According to one estimate, rockets from Gaza will potentially cost Israel about $30 million in direct damage (and at this point, three civilian lives lost), while the Israel Defense Forces’ (IDF) response will cost about $1 billion. Why do Israelis accept paying these financial costs of the war for a relatively small direct threat?

My recent book on democratic militarism shows that while underlying incentives for high levels of defense spending are not unique to Israel, they are especially acute there. For most wealthy states, which have come to rely on volunteer armies rather than mass conscription, the provision of security has largely become a tax problem. As building a military and fighting in conflicts become exercises in fiscal rather than social mobilization, the costs in blood and treasure drop for the average voter. Common sense (or, for political scientists, the Meltzer-Richard hypothesis) suggests that when most voters pay little of the financial cost of a public good or service, they will demand more of it.

In Israel, however, the keenly-perceived threats of indiscriminate rockets and terrorism combine with growing economic inequality and an increasingly high-tech IDF to create a perverse incentive for a majority of voters to support aggressive operations for increasingly marginal gains in security. Given that none of these trends appear to be reversing, the level of violence pursued by Israel (and other wealthy democracies) to provide its voters near-total security will likely only increase.

This has not gone unremarked in Israel. Dan Halutz, a former IDF chief of staff, observed that Israel’s “military system is deeply influenced by long term…interrelated socio-cultural, budgetary and doctrinaire processes.” One of these processes, identified by the Winograd Report that followed the 2006 Lebanon War, is that Israel’s population is becoming increasingly individualistic and economically unequal. In a 2006 survey, only 27 percent of Israeli respondents thought that the interests of the country were more important than the individual’s personal ones, compared to 69 percent in 1981. This figure suggests that Israelis consider their personal stake in a conflict relatively more than in the past. A second, related process is Israel’s widening economic gap, with inequality increasing by 15.3 percent (versus an OECD average of 5.3 percent) since the mid-1980s. This implies that the very wealthy will be paying more for goods and services funded by income taxes.

A final, related process is the increasingly capital-intensive evolution of the IDF. Israel has spent lavish sums of money (some provided by the United States) to build a military that provides a high degree of protection for civilians and soldiers. While the 90 percent success rate reported by the Israeli military of the Iron Dome, costing between $20,000 and $100,000 per missile, has prompted skepticism, it cannot be denied that the Israeli public perceives it as very effective. As an IDF spokesperson put it “there is a bigger issue here than how much it costs. [The Iron Dome system] is going to give us some answers.”

Along with its improved defenses, Israel’s offensive firepower continues to swell. Just two months ago, the commander of the Israeli Air Force, Maj. Gen. Amir Eshel, boasted of a 400 percent increase in its firepower over the past two years and predicted that the weeklong campaign against Hamas two years ago now “would take less than 12 hours.” Given that the current conflict has already lasted three times as long as the fighting in 2012, this suggests Israel’s response has been much more intense than previous conflicts (including the three-week long Operation Cast Lead from 2008-09).

If citizens believe that military force improves its security, and the financial burden of providing defense is distributed unequally in Israel, public opinion polling (at least among non-Arab Israeli citizens) should reflect this. If arming and conflict have redistributive effects, lower income voters should favor defense spending and aggressive foreign policy more highly.

Data from the 2013 Israel National Election Study largely supports this proposition. For simplicity, respondents are divided into five income groups of roughly equal number of between 144 and 263 respondents. The “bottom” group encompasses respondents who reported their monthly household income after taxes to be less than 4,500 NIS (about $1,313).The fourth quintile ranges from 4,501 – 8,000 NIS ($1,314 – $2,335), the “middle” (median) group 8,001 – 12,000 NIS ($2,336 – $3,503) and the “second” quintile 12,001 – 16,000 NIS ($3,504 – $4,671). The “top” quintile has income above 16,000 NIS ($4,672). The results do not change much when considering the original 10 income categories (or considering factors such as education level and partisanship).


The first chart depicts the percentage of respondents in each quintile favoring increased defense spending. A stunning 73 percent of the bottom quintile advocates a larger budget, compared to 23 percent of the wealthiest respondents. Clearly, lower household incomes correlate to a higher likelihood of supporting defense spending. Given the long-standing liberal tradition – from Kant to Cobden to contemporary democratic peace advocates –that militarism is a game of the wealthy, this is a counterintuitive relationship.


This redistributive effect translates into preferences vis-à-vis the occupied territories. More than 20 percent more respondents in the top income quintile would favor the establishment of a Palestinian state relative to the bottom quintile. Almost twice as many bottom quintile respondents are unwilling to evacuate any settlement in the occupied territories. If the use of force costs little, then one is likely to make fewer concessions to avoid it. These findings also probably reflect that settlements in many ways are government subsidized residences for some members of the lower middle class.

Interestingly, there appears to be little relationship between income and preference to “increase military strength” over “concentrate on peace talks” as a means to “prevent war between Israel and the Arab countries.” This suggests the choice between force and diplomacy is more complicated than the book’s redistributive theory suggests. Overall, however, the data are nonetheless suggestive that giving the average Israeli voter (at least in terms of income) what he or she wants will not result in de-escalation or compromise.

It’s callous to discuss financial costs without acknowledging the many lives that have been lost in this conflict. Indeed, the asymmetric losses in blood and funds between the two sides are perversely related. Israel is a capital-rich, unequal democracy where the average voter may influence policy. Gaza – thanks to the policies of Israel, Egypt and Hamas – is abundant in people rather than money, and the typical resident has much less influence on his or her “government.” Hamas is taking personnel and infrastructure losses, but apparently has calculated that the conflict maximizes its long-term viability. In order to prolong the conflict it is accordingly spending its abundant resource: People. An increasingly violent relationship in which one side lavishly spends some of its constituents’ (and the United States’) money, and the other expends its subjects’ lives, seems all too likely.

Jonathan Caverley is a research associate in political science at MIT and the author of Democratic Militarism: Voting, Wealth, and War.

Continue reading
Comments
Show Comments