Israel's bill for war: less than expected

The Lebanese campaign may be the most controversial of Israel's wars, but so far it has exacted the least painful economic toll.

True, the average Israeli has been hit with rising food costs, increased inflation, and war taxes that will siphon off the spare cash he might have used to purchase a new television or refrigerator.

But at the national level, Israeli officials say the economic strain is so much less than in previous wars that no supplementary aid requests to the United States should be necessary.

''I really don't see that we will need to ask for additional aid,'' says Ephraim Davrath, deputy director general of international affairs for the Israeli Finance Ministry. Mr. Davrath is preparing the 1984 Israel aid budget for submission to the US. ''I think we can absorb the costs,'' he adds.

But with the PLO evacuation not yet complete and both Syrian and Israeli troops still in Lebanon, Mr. Davrath cautions that the final figures are not yet in.

''All estimates are still temporary,'' he says.

According to Mr. Davrath, direct military costs for this war now total $1 billion to $1.3 billion, mostly in expended ammunition, bombs, transport, maintenance and repair, and payments and services to soldiers. An additional $ 400 million to $500 million in indirect economic costs were due mostly to lost production time of mobilized reserve soldiers and decreased exports.

These figures are lower than the $2.5 billion in total costs estimated earlier by Shlomo Lorincz, chairman of the Knesset (Israeli parliament) finance committee.

The burden of this war was diminished by the nature of the fighting, which spared Israel the loss of highly expensive equipment. The Palestine Liberation Organization had no air force and proved little match for the powerful Israeli Army.

Moreover, once Israel knocked out Syria's ground-to-air missiles in the technological triumph of the war, Syria's Air Force was decimated by Israel. In more than 10 weeks of fighting Israel lost only one A-5 Skyhawk and one F-4 Phantom jet.

In comparison, Israeli losses in the 1973 October war totaled 105 aircraft and 800 tanks. The lost equipment alone equaled Israel's gross national product (total output of goods and services) for that year. The present war has cost approximately 7 to 8 percent of Israel's current $20 billion GNP, according to Mr. Davrath.

Another reason for lower cost was the relatively small number of Army reservists called up for duty in this war, compared with 1973. Casualties were also far smaller, reducing the incalculable costs of the loss of able individuals as well as the major expense of caring for wounded and disabled.

Replacing lost Army materiel will not be cheap. Israeli Finance Minister Yoram Aridor said that artillery shells of 120 to175 mm cost between $160 and $ 880 apiece, while 105-mm tank-gun shells cost between $272 and $664 each, depending on type.

But Israel has become increasingly self-sufficient in arms production since 1974 and will be able itself to replace most of its ammunition. It will also be able to restore and renovate many damaged tanks.

With chances of another major war slim, barring a conflagration with Syria, the cost of replacing ammunition can be spaced out over several years, thus reducing still further the impact on the economy.

This increasing self-sufficiency in weaponry has tangible political side benefits. Some observers had speculated that an Israeli demand for increased economic aid to offset war costs would give the US political leverage over future Israeli policy in Lebanon and toward the Palestinians.

At present, Israel receives $1.4 billion in US military grants and credits and $785 million in economic aid. For fiscal 1983 President Ronald Reagan has requested an increase in military aid to $1.7 billion. But the desperation of post-1973 war days does not exist here today.

Still, the public has already begun to feel the bite of the war burden in the form of sharp price increases for basic commodities like milk, bread, margarine, eggs, frozen meats and poultry, as well as higher phone, postal, and bus rates.

The government has pledged to slash $200 million in subsidies and other government spending. It has also imposed a 4 percent war tax on incomes to be paid over the next nine months. This is to be repaid in 12 years, by which time inflation will have eaten up most of its value.

The war and price increases have offset recent government attempts to slash Israel's staggering inflation rate, which has jumped back to 130 percent. The blow is softened, however, by the Israeli system of indexing wages to rises in the cost of living.

Some critics of the government are skeptical that the economic burden will remain so bearable.''No one knows the price yet, the replacement costs, the inflation costs, the cost of staying in Lebanon,'' says Zeev Schiff, defense correspondent of the daily Ha'aretz.

Israel has already begun spending large sums to equip soldiers in Lebanon for winter. And many Army reservists (all men between the ages of 21 and 54) may have their annual duty tours raised to 60 or even 90 days, a boost of 20 to 50 percent.

Some Israelis worry that exports, already in trouble before the war because of international economic recession, could suffer from selective political boycotts by European nations hostile to Israel's invasion of Lebanon.

Other Israelis, however, point out economic side benefits from the war. Possibilities have opened up for trade with Lebanon, which could become a surreptitious conduit to the larger Middle East market. (As yet, the $10 million worth of exports to Lebanon for July and August barely shows up against Israel's

Israeli defense exports may soar as the success of domestically manufactured weapons systems adds to their reputation and desirability in third-world markets.

Vast amounts of weaponry found in PLO warehouses can also be sold for profit. This prompted Daniel Block to write in an article in the daily Davar entitled, ''War Under Luxurious Economic Conditions'':

''Cynics with a black sense of humor add that we must warn the European countries that if they apply sanctions against us, we can sell the goods at bargain prices to several European underground movements.''

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