While the government cuts its social and welfare budgets, the military is being granted, again, a budget increase - this time of NIS 1.5 billion.
The surrender by the prime minister and finance minister to pressure from the Defense Ministry is the direct continuation of what happened on the eve of the budget's passing five months ago. Then, amid the global recession, virtually nonexistent economic growth and the rising budget deficit, Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz demanded a cut of NIS 3 billion in outlays to the Israel Defense Forces. But Defense Minister Ehud Barak insisted on an increase. After a long dispute, the army agreed to a small concession: postponing spending totaling NIS 1.5 billion by two years. Now, five months later, it has been able to get back everything it lost.
While the disagreement over the defense budget dragged on, Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi promised to present a detailed plan on raising the military's retirement age, which he has so far failed to do. Instead, he is continuing his predecessors' well-worn tradition of making a laughingstock of both the Finance Ministry and us all.
The call to raise the army's retirement age is an old one (10 years at least), but the IDF continues to dawdle over implementation. Also under debate is a proposal that people serving in certain military positions no longer be considered standing army officials, but civilians from whom the army buys services. The IDF employees in question are those working in certain technical, technological, engineering, economic and legal positions who do not wear uniforms and are not exposed to any military danger, so they needn't be entitled to the same benefits as other career army employees.
There is no reason that an attorney at the Military Advocate General should work only 24 years (from age 21 to 45), and then be allowed to enjoy a pension for 37 years. Logic dictates that the distribution of working years should be reversed - such an employee should work for 46 years (from age 21 to 67) and then receive a pension for 15 years. The IDF would enjoy huge savings - the budget for paying early pensions reaches NIS 4 billion annually.
Another army stratum that should be examined is its noncombat apparatus, which includes around 75 percent of IDF positions. Those employees could see their retirement age raised to 57. Regarding the combat apparatus (the remaining 25 percent of the army), the changes would be small, as retirement age would be raised to 46.
We should recall that today one may retire from the IDF at 42 and immediately begin receiving a pension. In practice, the average retirement age from the army is 45. But this is not the only problem, as the IDF is not fulfilling its promise to submit a streamlining plan, one intended to divert NIS 30 billion from salary payments and benefits toward improving the army's capabilities. In the current situation, 65 percent of the IDF's budget goes toward paying salaries, benefits, pensions, rehabilitation and purchases, and only 35 percent to strengthening its capabilities.
These proportions must be changed in favor of building up the military. The significant points of the downsizing program must revolve around raising the retirement age, cutting benefits, reducing entitlements for rehabilitation, outsourcing, shortening mandatory service, and eliminating redundancies at the Defense Ministry and army regarding purchasing and construction. Also important is trimming down wasteful Home Front Command centers, cutting the surplus of senior officers serving on the home front, and cutting the number of projects and expensive defense delegations to New York, Washington, Paris, Brussels and Berlin.
The military, however, has so far presented only small streamlining programs that do not deal with the big issues. It claims it is operating based on the downsizing program drafted with the help of the international consulting company McKinsey. Finance Ministry officials, however, say this has no relevance regarding the larger program that should have been approved by the National Security Council. They say these are insignificant sums and negligible issues aimed at public relations alone.
If so, it seems the fight over retirement and streamlining programs is likely to drag on. Steinitz will keep making demands and Barak will continue stalling with the prime minister's blessing. The problem is that an organization that is not trimmed down becomes too big, fat, heavy and inflexible. Such an organization is a prime candidate for serious illnesses like osteoporosis and paralysis - maladies we saw affect the IDF during the Second Lebanon War and which we can't allow to afflict us again.
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