JERUSALEM (Jun. 17)
The Cabinet will meet in special session tomorrow to consider a proposed IL 15 billion out in the defense budget. But if the controversial measure is approved, it is expected to encounter difficulties in the Knesset where both coalition and opposition members denounced it today as a danger to national security and criticized the haste with which it was brought before the full Cabinet.
The issue has sparked a bitter dispute between the defense establishment and the Treasury. Premier Menachem Begin sought to resolve it yesterday by appointing a five-man committee headed by Agriculture Minister Ariel Sharon to work out a compromise. Although the panel was expected to deliberate for several days, Sharon convened it immediately and after a 5 1/2 hour meeting, the budget cut was approved by a vote of 3-2.
The outcome was expected since Sharon made it clear yesterday that he supported the cut. He held the deciding vote. In addition to Sharon, the panel consisted of two Treasury officials and two Defense Ministry officials.
The issue was discussed in the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Security Committee today. Labor MK Haim Barlev, a former Chief of Staff, said a cut of that magnitude could not be sustained without severely affecting Israel’s defense capabilities. He also criticized the “most ridiculous way” in which the decision was made. Such cuts cannot be decided by sitting down for a few hours. “It is simply not serious,” Barlev declared.
CHARGE CUT WILL ENDANGER SECURITY
Yehuda Ben-Meir, of the National Religious Party, a coalition partner, said he was convinced that the proposed cut would do inestimable damage to the country’s defense establishment. “You can cut IL 15 billion and you can decide that the army won’t train this year,” Ben-Meir said. “Anything can be decided. The question is, what is in the best interests of the State?” He said he would vote against the budget cut in the Knesset.
Begin, who is serving temporarily as Defense Minister, refused to allow defense officials to appear before the Knesset committee prior to the special Cabinet session. But defense sources warned that if the budget cut is approved by Begin, it would result in serious delays in producing Israel’s second generation jet fighter plane, the. “Lavie.” Soldiers stationed in the Negev desert and hills will be forced to live in tents for the next year or two and the size of the army may have to be reduced.
The IL 15 billion cut in defense spending was demanded by Finance Minister Yigal Hurwitz. Defense Ministry officials and senior officers said today that they could absorb on IL 4 billion cut at the very most and expressed hope that Begin would not accept the Sharon committee’s recommendations in full.
Equally disturbing to many coalition members are the political implications of Begin’s appointment of Sharon as the principal arbitrator in the defense budget dispute. While powerful coalition objections prevented Begin from naming the hawkish Sharon as Defense Minister, he now seems to have emerged as the “strong man” on the most basic issue affecting defense. Some coalition members were asking today whether Begin will make it a habit of giving Sharon jurisdiction over matters that are normally the prerogative of the Defense Minister.