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Fearful of war, Israelis worry military budget is insufficient

December 12, 1996

TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) _ Israelis increasingly are worried about conflict with Syria or the Palestinians _ and fear that their military spending may have shrunk so much that their army won’t be prepared for it.

There appears to be growing agreement among supporters of the hard-line government and the dovish opposition that the military budget should be increased after years of decline.

But instead, the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu this week slashed the $9.5 billion military budget by $150 million as part of a larger cut aimed at overcoming economic problems.

The army has protested, and reportedly is planning to ask for an extra $1 billion.

Interviews with Israeli military experts suggest there is broad agreement that the demand is justified.

``What sufficed last year will not suffice now,″ said Zeev Maoz, head of Tel Aviv University’s Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, a relatively dovish think tank.

Maoz said the military must reassess its approach in the wake of the May election that replaced peace architect Shimon Peres with Netanyahu, a hardliner whose policies have heightened tension in the region.

Netanyahu opposes the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza and the return of the Golan Heights to Syria.

In recent months, Israel has faced a burst of fighting with the Palestinians in which 79 people died, and increasingly warlike rhetoric from Syria. Many Israelis believe war is possible.

In the coming year, Maoz said, ``the army will possibly have a (Palestinian) uprising and a greater threat of war with Syria, (while) last year the main threats were terrorism and the (Lebanese militia) Hezbollah.″

Believing that a ground war was unlikely, the military has invested in recent years in defensive and nonconventional weapons, at the expense of manpower, weapons and training.

Over the past decade, army manpower has fallen 50 percent, while military spending fell from 30 percent of gross national product two decades ago to only 9 percent of GNP.

Maoz said the cutbacks were based on a now-outdated ``assumption of declining dangers of conventional warfare.″

Ephraim Inbar, director of more conservative BESA Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University, said the system of military reserves _ which accounts for most of the army’s potential manpower _ is ``collapsing,″ with the majority of Israeli men no longer regularly called up.

Israel’s army, navy and air force have 177,500 regulars, while there are 427,000 reservists. Syria has 532,500 soldiers, according to the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University.

Inbar said there is a ``dangerous decline″ in Israel’s weapons and equipment stocks. And, he said, the military budget _ and the U.S. military aid package of $1.8 billion _ have remained constant in dollar terms, while armaments that Israel buys with foreign currency have become much more expensive.

``I would look into the possibility of increasing the military budget,″ he said.

On the surface, increasing military spending would seem difficult: the government already faces strong opposition in parliament for cutting deep into welfare programs in its plan to eliminate some $2 billion from the $53 billion 1997 spending plan.

But there appears to be a surprising degree of support for the idea, with such rare allies as right-wing firebrand Uzi Landau, who chairs the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, and opposition Meretz Party leader Yossi Sarid in favor.

``There is no connection between the (military budget) and the increasingly dangerous reality,″ defense commentator Avihai Becker wrote in the Maariv newspaper on Wednesday. ``It is appropriate for an era of peace, while the trend is in the opposite direction.″

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