As the IDF's Budget Grows, Its Conscripts Get Left Behind

While outlays for career army personnel's wages and pensions skyrocket, many conscripts will continue to rely on the largesse of others.

Shuki Sadeh
Shuki Sadeh
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Shuki Sadeh
Shuki Sadeh

When Michal’s son was participating in the naval officers’ course, the family’s expenditures spiked dramatically. “During one training session,” said Michal ‏(her name and those of all other parents and children identified only by their given names below are pseudonyms‏), “he spent a lot of time in the water and emerged with enormous amounts of salt on his clothes. He simply had to toss them in the trash. I remember how during that period I bought a hysterical amount of underwear and socks, and this was a significant share of our monthly expenses. With the NIS 700 a month he got in wages then, there was no way he could handle that on his own.”

Did you consider turning to the army in this matter?

“In the naval officers’ course, the parents do not ask for assistance on any account. They constantly tell the soldiers and parents: ‘You are the best.’ So would we dare turn to them? I’m not the type to ask for help. It’s easier for me to figure out ways to meet household expenses.”

Michal’s daughter is currently serving as a mashakit tash, a noncommissioned officer in charge of soldiers’ welfare, and has spent most of her service on Israel Defense Forces bases. “Maintaining a soldier is an expensive business,” Michal says. “When my son didn’t come home, we would travel to distant bases to see him. That of course means high gasoline expenses, but also a lot of food that you come with, because there were bases on which the food was simply intolerable. In certain respects, maintaining a soldier is more onerous than funding a high-school student, because at least the [younger] kids work during vacations and can cover some of their expenses themselves.”

Michal is not an exception. While public discourse is currently focused on the growing defense budget and the skyrocketing costs of wages and pensions for career personnel in the army, a certain population is being left out − the conscripts, and even more so, their parents. Although 18 year-olds are adults before the law, until their discharge from the military they are still reliant on their parents. The reason for this is, among other things, the ridiculously low wages the IDF pays conscripts, at a time when the rising cost of living weighs heavily upon them as well.

A soldier earns NIS 352 a month; NIS 700 if he does combat duty ‏(usually beginning after basic training‏), or NIS 780 if he serves in what is considered a more dangerous combat role. Women soldiers receive an additional NIS 163 once a year to help cover personal hygiene expenses.

“Obviously I get money from my parents, and the same goes for all my friends,” says Moshe, a combat soldier in the Golani Brigade who is nearing the end of his compulsory service. “First of all, we spend money at the base, on cans of Coke for example or when we order pizza in the evening. When you do make it home, you want to enjoy yourself as much as possible: NIS 100 per person is a low sum for a night out on the weekend. I mean, just admission to a party at a club costs NIS 60-70, and that’s before you’ve even bought drinks. People can spend as much as NIS 300 when they go out.”

Evidently, soldiers’ habits when it comes to going out and having a good time are unknown to IDF bureaucrats, who decide which expenditures should be taken into consideration when determining what is defined as “subsistence pay.”

A few weeks ago, Channel 2’s Friday night news magazine uncovered an itemized list from 1986, which served as the basis for determining soldiers’ subsistence pay. The list included items such as a pen, writing paper and envelopes, products that in the era of Facebook, WhatsApp and e-mail could be considered to be museum pieces. The list was drawn up in an era when quite a few products were subsidized for soldiers, including movie tickets, cheese and sugar, and when IDF commissaries had not been privatized − as opposed to today, when they operate for profit and charge market prices. In the intervening years, prices have skyrocketed: In 1986 a pack of Time cigarettes cost a mere NIS 1, whereas today it sells for NIS 26. A pair of movie tickets cost NIS 5 back then, compared to NIS 78 today.

The list came to light thanks to High Court of Justice proceedings relating to a petition filed in July 2012 by three brothers − Ariel, Shani and Amir Lorch, who are represented by their father, attorney Amnon Lorch ‏(their real names‏) − who argue that subsistence pay for conscripts should be raised. The total sum of products on the list, at 1986 prices, was NIS 72, which CPI adjustments brought to NIS 352 in 2002. However, since the end of 2002 the sum has not been adjusted to meet the CPI and has remained unchanged.

Prior to 2002, soldiers’ pay would be adjusted in accordance with the cost-of-living increases that all salaried employees received every few years fairly regularly. But since that year, following a new government policy, cost-of-living bonuses are no longer granted across the board, but are, rather, restricted to those working in the public sector. IDF General Staff regulations were altered such that when a cost-of-living bonus is given in the public sector, salaries of personnel in the career army are adjusted − but nothing was decided with regard to conscripts, and thus their wages have stayed at the 2002 level.

By contrast, the salaries of army career personnel has been updated several times since then, most recently in January 2013, when wages rose by 2.25 percent − constituting NIS 129 million of the defense budget totalling NIS 10.4 billion. While conscripts’ wages remained frozen, the chief of staff’s salary made a wondrous leap: In 2002 his monthly salary was NIS 55,000, whereas today is it NIS 73,000.

In April, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon decided that conscripts’ salaries would be raised 21 percent as of January 2014. This means that combat soldiers will begin to be paid NIS 847 a month, and noncombat soldiers will get NIS 426. The subject was at the center of a tug-of-war between the treasury and the military, until the Justice Ministry directed the Defense Ministry to go ahead with the raise. The budgetary cost of this move, after January, is expected to total NIS 170 million a year.

Despite the upcoming pay increase, however, we are still talking about absurdly low wages, which will still not be linked to the CPI. One fact that underscores the injustice here is the remuneration granted to National Service volunteers: NIS 365-NIS 840 a month. The IDF does supply its soldiers with clothing, a roof over their heads and three meals a day, but the subsistence pay for these volunteers is updated annually according to the CPI, something that has not happened in the IDF in the past decade.

Attorney Lorch checked the actual prices of the products appearing on the IDF subsistence list, and found that their total cost today would be NIS 1,241 − well beyond the wages being paid. In addition, the list does not take into account changes in conscripts’ consumer habits: first and foremost the use of mobile phones, but also longer weekend furloughs and quite a few other expenses that did not exist 30 years ago. On the other hand, it is true that today, as opposed to back then, soldiers do travel free on public transportation.

“About a year before the petition was submitted, my son told me about his salary, NIS 350,” Amnon Lorch recounts. “His brothers, who are six and eight years older than he is, said that it was exactly the same salary they got, to the shekel. I began looking into the matter, and realized that there had been no CPI adjustment whatsoever here. If the defense budget grew by 30 percent in the past seven years, why didn’t they take care of the conscripts? There’s a junta here that takes care of its own interests.”

Class differences

From the military’s perspective, it spends much more money on conscripts than the sums it deposits in their bank accounts: It underwrites their uniforms, food, lodging, medical insurance and other expenses. On top of this, the 1994 Discharged Soldiers Law stipulates that the Defense Ministry, through a special fund, must give discharged soldiers a monetary grant that will be used to help cover tuition at an institution of higher learning or for establishment of a business. Specifically, a combat soldier receives a discharge grant of NIS 10,500 immediately upon completing his service, and is also entitled to what’s called a pikadon ‏(pledge‏) of NIS 28,500 that is earmarked either for studies or a new business. A combat-support conscript is entitled to a pikadon of NIS 25,000, whereas a noncombat soldier receives NIS 20,000 ‏(assuming they served a full three years; conditions are different for “lone soldiers” − soldiers without families‏). The annual cost of the fund for discharged soldiers ‏(which also gives special grants to students in outlying areas of the country‏) is NIS 2.2 billion − double the IDF’s outlay for conscript soldiers’ salaries: NIS 1.1 billion.

“It’s true that the sums paid to soldiers as subsistence pay are laughable, and this is an injustice that should be redressed,” says someone who formerly held a senior position in the military’s financial administration, “but conscripts cost the IDF a lot more than their salaries. The parents who complain about the burden of supporting their kids during their service need to bear in mind that later on they will save on university tuition, thanks to the fund for discharged soldiers. Soldiers have always relied on their parents, and there have been soldiers who had to work on the weekends to supplement their income. There will always be whiners, but the truth is that anyone who really wants to, can find a way to manage.”

Sociologist Yagil Levy, of the Open University, studies the relationship between society and the military. He says it is no accident that parents have begun to look at army service differently in recent years.

“One of the syndromes of the market society we live in is that people view compulsory service in terms of a covert tax,” Dr. Levy says. “We can see this discourse developing, something that did not exist in the past: parents who view through an economic lens what the state demands of them. Upkeep of children during their military service has become part of the overall protest over the cost of living. I believe that grievances in this matter will only increase.”

Parents of soldiers who serve close to home are the main “casualties” of their children’s low subsistence pay, if only because these young people have more free time in which to spend money. Carmit only realized during her daughter’s army service what a mistake she had made by not including in her divorce agreement a clause pertaining to covering such expenses during that period: When the child of divorced parents reaches 18, child support payments shrink significantly. Carmit’s two soldier daughters live at home with her and she continues to support them, but with much less help from their father.

“It is no easy task, something I didn’t think about when they were younger,” she says. “I don’t understand how you can have a situation in which the parents, indirectly, are the ones who underwrite the army.”

Hila, who has a daughter serving in the Tel Aviv area, has another view of this situation. Hila resides some distance from Tel Aviv, and therefore her daughter is allowed to live in a rented apartment near her base. But the lodging subsidy the daughter gets is very low − NIS 670 a month − and Hila claims that the IDF has not taken into consideration the meteoric rise in rental prices in recent years. Her daughter shares an apartment with four other soldiers, but Hila still needs to help her cover various ongoing expenses ‏(soldiers do, however, get a significant discount on municipal property taxes‏).

“The soldiers serving at open bases [those that allow them to go to and from home on a daily basis] are supposedly a pile of lazy desk jockeys,” Hila says. “That is nonsense, of course, because the vast majority perform essential tasks − otherwise the military would not invest in them. If the army wants them, it should provide proper conditions.”

Living in a rented apartment is an exception: Most male and female soldiers who serve on rear ‏(home front‏) bases travel each morning from their families’ homes to their bases in cars or via public transportation.

“I got up every morning at 6 A.M. and got back at 8 P.M.,” says Sharon, who served until recently at an intelligence base near Tel Aviv. “I earned NIS 352 a month, and my parents kept depositimg putting money in my account. During the week, I had no time to go out, but every weekend I would spend money.”

“I think my expenses, even with going out only once a week, came to between NIS 1,000 and NIS 2,000 a month,” adds Yael, who was just discharged from the army. “I got money from my parents and dipped into my savings. Since I served on a base where work ends at 5 P.M., I also did some waitressing here and there − without permission, of course. A lot of soldiers at our base worked without authorization, got cash under the table. Beyond that, there were a lot of welfare cases. About a third of the soldiers did receive permission to work to help out their families.”

Yael describes a phenomenon that has become prevalent in recent years in the IDF: class differences within units, which stem from larger trends Israeli society is undergoing. Some of the parents wwith whom we spoke, especially those with children in combat units, were more concerned about these social gaps than about their personal expenditure on their children. The mother of a soldier in the Armored Corps, for instance, mentions the ceremony marking the end of basic training, at which she learned that to get photos from the event, she would have to pay NIS 50 to a private photographer. “And what about those who don’t have NIS 50?” she asks.

Tamar adds: “I have one son who was discharged a year ago, and one who is still serving, both of them in the navy. Our income is above average and we can afford to support them, but that is indescribable chutzpah. I don’t understand how families that don’t have the wherewithal manage. I know that my sons paid and pay for guys that haven’t got money, when all the guys go out on the town together, or if someone lacks certain equipment. I got a call from an organization that helps the IDF, and they asked me to donate to a unit they are adopting. I said, ‘Thank you, but I’ve already adopted at home.’ I don’t understand how such a thing happens − there are mountains of money in the defense budget. For example, they spend a lot of money on the Defense Ministry’s procurement delegations overseas. Can’t they stop doing those things so the money can go to where it is truly needed?”

Orna, whose son is currently undergoing basic training in a combat unit, agrees. A resident of one of the upscale neighborhoods populated by military personnel in a town in the center of the country, she says the socioeconomic gaps are palpable.

“Recently we bought a lot of stuff to bring to our son − when he stays on base for three weeks, you need to make sure he has a clean pair of socks every day, and he also needs warm undershirts. We spent a lot of time in stores that sell military gear. And what happens to someone who doesn’t have parents who can drive on Shabbat all the way to the Negev to bring clothes and food?

“In my neighborhood,” Orna continues, “I see the [former career soldier/officer] 40-somethings who are engaged in a second and third career, driving company cars at the same time they receive a military pension. It is galling to see what the military does have money for. I see all the people in the neighborhood going out with their bicycles on Shabbat, with fashionable and expensive jogging clothes − you see that folks here pretty much have it made. But it’s a bubble. What is going on outside?”

Private cars

The gaps are much more glaring at the open bases. If 20 or 30 years ago, only a handful of soldiers would arrive at these bases in private cars, today the parking lots of the large bases in the country’s center are full of such vehicles. Many also eat lunch out at restaurants near the base, a phenomenon that particularly stands out at the Azrieli Mall adjacent to the Kirya, the defense establishment’s headquarters in Tel Aviv.

“Inequality in the IDF is greater than in the past, both because social gaps have grown and because of the change in consumer patterns,” say sociologist Levy. “Because the consumerism has become ostentatious − food, restaurants, clothes − it is much more visible than before. This is glaring on the rear bases, the real place where the people of Israel meet in the army.”

An estimated 25 percent of soldiers require welfare aid of some kind. Severe welfare cases, such as a single-parent supporting several children or immigrant families in financial distress, receive help in the form of what is called “family payments,” which can reach NIS 4,000 a month. Alternately, there are soldiers whom the military enables to work to help support their families. Nevertheless, quite a few of the deserters sitting in facilities like Military Prison No. 6 were incarcerated because they ran away to find work and help their families.

“It’s not that most of the deserters in Prison 6 are there because of their financial plight, but there are a great many soldiers who do serve and are in daily distress,” says Ilan Katz, a lawyer who represents soldiers who have gone AWOL when they appear before military tribunals. “For example, I have a client who worked nightly at a bakery . Is this the object of the IDF, to take a soldier and compel him to work?”

“Seventy-five percent of the soldiers in my platoon had welfare problems,” says Yonatan Bashan, a platoon leader in the Kfir Brigade. “As a commander, I did everything in my power so they would get the benefits they had coming to them, and more. One time I heard that someone from my neighborhood was moving apartments and leaving a lot of furniture behind. I made a few phone calls, and reached out to someone, a friend of my father’s, who agreed to help with transport. In that way I managed to furnish apartments for the families of two of my soldiers, families whose refrigerators were completely empty.”

The economic hardships of soldiers, certainly those in combat units, fuel a phenomenon that has grown in recent years: donations to the IDF, which continue to stream in despite the enormous defense budget, from Israel and abroad. Aside from the Association for the Wellbeing of Israel’s Soldiers, which has been around for years, in the past decade many local commercial enterprises, such as Bank Hapoalim, the Israel Corporation and others have adopted combat units. Individual businesspeople also raise contributions.

AWIS raised some NIS 154.9 million in donations in 2012. The Defense Ministy is due to replace the organization - whose staff salaries and other expenses have been deemed to be excessive by a public investigatory committee - along with the Libi Fund, which also supports the army. A new fundraising body is supposed to be established in early 2014, but Haaretz reported this week that the ministry is holding up the process.

According to Bashan, these contributions can help reduce the sense of social gaps in a unit. “We had class differences, but it wasn’t felt as much because things that arrived from outside, through donations, were distributed equally among all the soldiers,” he says. “One of the big contributors was the father of a soldier, an immigrant from the United States, who was a wealthy businessman. He simply wanted to contribute to the platoon as much as possible. Thanks to him every soldier got a fleece jacket for the winter, a Leatherman [tool and knife device], an end-of-training backpack, a hat, and the high point: 20 bicycles, so the soldiers could occasionally work out with bikes instead of being limited to running.”

MK Cabel’s suggestion

It is likely that the petition filed by the Lorch family − the subject of a High Court hearing scheduled for November 20 − will lead to change of some kind. If conscripts’ salaries are not raised as a result of the case, then the list of subsistence items may at least be updated, or perhaps soldiers’ wages will be adjusted annually according to the CPI. The larger issue, one unlikely to be addressed by the High Court’s ruling, is whether a more substantial increase in soldiers’ pay is indeed possible and what the consequences of such a step would be.

Five years ago, Amir Peretz, then a member of Knesset from the Labor Party and today a minister from Hatnuah, proposed a bill that would grant soldiers minimum wage. The legislation, whose cost was estimated at the time to be NIS 4 billion a year, passed its preliminary reading but was subsequently shelved, mainly because of opposition from the treasury.

Labor MK Eitan Cabel is contemplating proposing a similar bill in the present Knesset session. “The salary conscripts receive is disgraceful, it does not meet any standard,” he says. “It is impossible particularly in view of the critical mass of the middle class and those beneath it. It’s as if someone works for me, but his family has to pay his salary. I get loads of requests from soldiers on this matter.”

On the other hand, there are those who think that before the country takes the step of raising wages, it is imperative to fully grasp the implications of such a move. “Military service is still perceived as a mission, and switching to minimum wage would create a template for switching from a mission to an occupation, something that is beginning to happen today in the reserves, where the reimbursement system is one of remuneration and not of compensation,” Levy explains. “A long-term view is needed here. I anticipate a process in which the military will draft fewer people, each of whom costs more money. Economists may welcome such a move, because the military would become streamlined, but it would turn the IDF into a professional army. That is another discussion altogether that society as a whole needs to hold, in depth. But we should not make such a change by means of finding immediate solutions on the subject of soldiers’ wages.”

Instances of IDF soldiers stealing munitions to sell to criminals are few, but worrying.Credit: Gil Eliahu

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