Tel Aviv Diary: Why Would Netanyahu Increase Israel's Defense Budget? | Opinion

It has been a beautiful summer in Tel Aviv. As opposed to much of the world, the weather here remained moderate for most of the summer (with typical highs around 85 and lows around 75.) With almost the entire city a maximum 30-minute walk from a beach, it's been a fine summer, despite the threat of a war with Gaza. As of the writing of this article, that threat may be receded, thanks to an announced agreement between Israel and Hamas initiating a one-year ceasefire, which might be the beginning of a longer-term agreement. Meanwhile, the economy continues to grow, even if it shows some signs of slowing. So why do so many of my fellow Tel Aviv residents seems so pessimistic?

For most of the largely secular, center-left residents of Tel Aviv, these past few weeks have been full of worrisome signs—starting with passage of the nation-state law three weeks ago, right through to a very disturbing announcement made on Wednesday night by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that the country's defense budget would be increased over the next 12 years, from $600 million to $1.2 billion a year. That would represent not only an absolute increase, but a rise of 0.2-0.3% as a percent of Israel GNP, reversing a multi-decade trend where Israel's growing economy has lowered the relative defense burden.

Netanyahu's declaration caught most people by surprise. Why now? What does it mean? One explanation suggests Netanyahu concluded Iran will obtain nuclear weapons and Israel must prepare for a nuclear Middle East, with all that implies. Others think the planned increases in military allocations are just part of Netanyahu's bunker mentality, i.e., "The whole world is against us, so we must be ready."

The most benign explanation I heard asserts the announcement is only another election ploy. I was confused. "Wouldn't a plan to end crowding in Israeli hospitals (as during the winter months patients are often cared for in the halls) be a more effective election ploy?" I asked. "No," my friend said, almost exasperated. "Don't you get it? It's almost Pavlovian. You say, 'Security' and voters think—Bibi. So, whenever Netanyahu talks about increasing security, even if it means deficient health care, voter support will increase."

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives for the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem on July 29, 2018. SEBASTIAN SCHEINER/AFP/Getty Images

Two seemingly unrelated, but in fact, very related events took place earlier in the week that disturbed many. First, was a very public campaign by right-wing organizations (led by "Im Tirtzu," which is said to have direct ties to the Prime Minister) against General Yair Golan, one of four candidates to become the next IDF Chief of Staff. Why? Golan's sin was two-fold. During a speech he gave last year on Holocaust Memorial Day, after returning from Poland, Golan warned of signs within Israeli society which "reminded him of Europe 50, 60, 70 years ago"—i.e. how dare Golan say there might be any sign of fascism in Israel? Golan's other comment, which critics took offense to, was made years ago—when Golan affirmed it was an important value for the Israeli army to take risks, so as not to harm civilians. His opponents claimed that constituted a sign he did not care about the lives of his soldiers, and thus could not be Chief of Staff.

Second, was the detention of well-known journalist Peter Beinart for questioning by the security services, when he tried to enter the country last Sunday. Beinart, who never made his views on Zionism and fierce criticism of the current government secret, was released after calling a lawyer. Prime Minister Netanyahu and the security services were quick to apologize. However, Beinart's detention was only one in a series of similar recent incidents, where American Jewish critics of the current Israeli government's policies have been questioned about their political views.

So what connects all of these events? Prime Minister Netanyahu. By announcing both an absolute and relative increase in the defense budget over the next 12 years, Netanyahu is declaring we are embattled, and will continue to be so. The security services that report directly to him understand the spirit of the moment. If we are embattled, obviously we cannot allow too much dissent. In war, liberties often take a back seat. And of course, under such circumstances, we cannot possibly have an army commander, even one who has given 38 years of his life in service, who might have the audacity to question not his orders, but the direction the society.

Since its independence 70 years ago, Israel has always strived to be a liberal democracy. That has not always been easy in a nation at war for all these years. It has constantly required a careful balance between liberty and true security fears. The fear today is that the burden of too many years of war, and politicians who exploit that fear, is slowly chipping away at the very foundations of the liberal society, whose liberties so many cherish.

Marc Schulman is a multimedia historian.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​