By Arieh O'Sullivan


Tel Aviv, Israel

The general was blunt. There are thousands of lethal and accurate rockets and missiles in the hands of its enemies in Lebanon and Gaza aimed at Tel Aviv and the populous center of Israel. But, he said, the Israeli army could count on the public to bear the cost.

"The rear is the cornerstone of our security concept", said Brig.-Gen.Yossi Beidatz, a former head of IDF intelligence assessment. "The public will be willing to absorb strikes if it understands why it's being hit, that the state is reasonably trying to protect it and, in the end, that the Israeli army will be victorious, especially if it initiated the conflict."

The legendary readiness of Israelis to make personal sacrifices for the sake of security, however, may be starting to crack -- not due to fatigue from a conflict that has dragged on for decades or a weakening of their resolve to face the enemy, but out of a sense of growing social injustice and alienation.

Manuel Trajtenberg, an economist who headed a committee that recommended a package of economic steps for social change, warned on Thursday that the wave of social protests in Israel that began last summer had "set off a red light" about the public's willingness to bear the security burden.

"If you feel injustice, alienation and deep distress, sooner or later this readiness will crack. And we can't let that happen," Trajtenberg told The Media Line at a conference in Tel Aviv on the country's national security situation. "This has never existed in the past."

Israelis staged mass protests across the country and others set up tent encampments in a spontaneous display at disaffection over such issues as the high cost of living and home and the sense that the country's rapid economic growth hasn't benefitted most of the public. The Trajtenberg report's proposals were adapted by the cabinet last month but must still be approved by parliament.

"Yes, there are cracks. We see that and it is almost unavoidable because of the length of the conflict," said Trajtenberg. "Young people in Israel are feeling they cannot really make a living in a way they had expected and they are feeling injustice and alienation. Those feelings are very detrimental to the willingness to serve and to partake in defense. So for Israel it is incredibly important to address the issue of social justice not only of themselves, but also of the implications for defense."

Speaking at an annual conference, Gen. Beidatz added that the defense establishment faced a dilemma of placing the Iron Dome batteries that shoot down incoming rockets around cities to protect the public, or to protect air bases in order to ensure fighter jets could fly. There were not enough for both.

The comments came amid a heavy barrage of traditional end-of-the-year fear-mongering from the military brass amid calls to boost defense spending. On Tuesday, Israel Defense Forces Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz warned the army would eventually be required to invade the Hamas-led Gaza Strip to stop incessant rocket fire on Israeli towns.

Earlier this week, Defense Minister Ehud Barak urged the government expand its budget to pay for social justice programs rather than take funds from the $15.3 billion defense budget, which many have seen as a source of funds for increased social spending.

The protest movement, which at its peak drew some 400,000 people to a rally in Tel Aviv, focused on specific issues like rising energy and cottage cheese prices, and the high costs of kindergartens and apartments for young families. It struck a nerve with a large chunk of Israel's middle class, which felt it wasn't sharing in the economic boom and sense burdens like taxes and security were falling unfairly on their shoulders.

While his panel's recommendations are struck on parliament, Trajtenberg told The Media Line he is not disappointed with the progress. The issue was so large that no politician can ignore it, he said.

"It's too early to be disappointed. So far the government has adopted the recommendations on taxes, which is very important. Those changes in and of themselves can change the distribution of income for the better, make it more progressive," he said, adding that more government decisions were expected next month. "So far so good. We'll see what happens in the next few months."

"The protests hinted that the problem may be deeper than we thought, and so turning Israel into a more just and equal society is even more urgent," he said, adding that the funding for the reforms needed to come from the defense budget.

Maj-Gen. (res.) Giora Eiland, a former national security adviser, said Israel's decision-making process isn't built to make major decisions on economics-related defense policy.

"The military establishment is cut off from the rest of the country," Eiland said, relating how generals was hammering out a new five-year plan with enormous budget increases to build its forces at a time when widespread protests were sweeping the streets.

"We are avoiding true discussions on security and the budget. We build capabilities that maybe we can relinquish and save a lot of money," he said. "But these discussions don't happen."

Israel's Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor also warned of the power of the defense establishment. He related how he authored a new defense doctrine in 2006 but that the defense establishment had prevented it from being approved because it didn't want to lose its monopoly on setting policy.

"But we have learned that there are limits to force," Meridor said. "We have to know what to ask from the army so that it doesn't look like it can't fulfill the goal."


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Are Israelis Less Willing to Make Sacrifices? | Global Viewpoint