Familiar theme to Netanyahu’s call to arms


Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a welcoming ceremony for Jewish immigrants from North America upon their arrival to Israel, at Ben Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv on Aug. 14. (BAZ RATNER/REUTERS)
Walter Pincus
Reporter August 20, 2012

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, facing domestic problems at home the past few weeks, began frantically banging his “I am threatening to attack Iran” drum.

One reason, which has gotten little publicity in the United States, is that Netanyahu has budget problems. His government has to make decisions on its defense spending at a time when his country faces some of the same economic problems that we do in the United States.

Like Pentagon boosters in this country, Netanyahu and his allies favor more defense spending, and they play up growing threats. The new theme is that the window is closing for an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, even if Israel has to go it alone.

Sound familiar? It does to some Israelis.

“Every year, for as long as Israel has existed, the army has intimidated the ministers and the public with various threats in order to increase its budget. Once the threat was Egypt, then came Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Hezbollah and the intifada, and now the Iranian bomb,” was the way the newspaper Haaretz put it in an editorial Friday.

From Aug. 1, when Netanyahu issued a statement saying, “Time to resolve this issue peacefully is running out,” through Thursday, when Defense Minister Ehud Barak said, “There are risks in the situation today . . . [but] it’s infinitely more dangerous . . . to deal with a nuclear Iran in the future,” the drumbeat from Israel has been steady and growing louder.

On Aug. 12, Netanyahu added a new twist. He had known for six months that his defense minister would be leaving this month. After all, he had chosen him to be his new ambassador to China. He officially named a successor last Tuesday.

The choice of an old army comrade, Avi Dichter, set off a new round of stories about getting additional funds for gas masks and bomb shelters in preparation, of course, for Iran’s response should the Israelis attack Tehran’s nuclear facilities.

On Wednesday, with the Iran threat and civil defense freshly in the air, Israel’s budget crunch came into focus.

Netanyahu held a closed cabinet meeting at the Tel Aviv headquarters of the Ministry of Defense, where Barak and Chief of General Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz went over the current budget and spending projections for the next five years.

Israel’s 2012 defense budget is roughly $14.9 billion and is expected to grow to $15.4 billion next year. However, a public controversy exists between Israel’s Defense Ministry and its Finance Ministry over whether defense spending is staying within limits established last year, in the wake of widespread demonstrations over the economy. The cabinet had accepted cuts in defense spending along with higher taxes on corporations and an increase in the capital gains tax.

At Wednesday’s session, according to Israeli news reports, Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz called for budget cuts in defense as well as other ministries.

Sound familiar? Remember, Americans are not just bystanders in Israel’s internal scuffle over defense spending or Netanyahu’s threats to bomb Iran.

The annual $3.1 billion that the United States supplies Israel under a program initiated by President George W. Bush now makes up about one-fifth of Israel’s defense budget, according to Colin H. Kahl, a former Defense Department official for the Middle East.

Meanwhile, Netanyahu’s Iran drumming, though in Israel a tool in the defense budget fight, is also directed at getting President Obama to take a more aggressive public military stance toward Tehran.

In last Sunday’s Washington Post, Amos Yadlin, director of Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies, expanded that theme, writing, “Obama should notify the U.S. Congress in writing that he reserves the right to use military force to prevent Iran’s acquisition of a military nuclear capability.”

No such step is needed, nor should it be injected into the U.S. presidential campaign. Meanwhile, Netanyahu’s defense budget issues should be solved by Israelis, not by America’s taxpayers.

For previous Fine Print columns, go to washingtonpost.com/fedpage.

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