A Minimum Degree of Fairness

Cutting the length of army service will yield enormous real benefit to the economy, because the real burden of military service is not the monetary payment to the soldiers but the loss to the GDP during the three years those soldiers are neither studying nor working.

An interesting alliance has been formed between MK Amir Peretz and Justice Minister Daniel Friedmann. On most issues they do not agree, but on one matter they do: They both want to raise the pay of conscripted soldiers.

The effort began when Friedmann turned to Peretz while he was defense minister and proposed pushing legislation to increase the wages of conscripted soldiers. Peretz said he needed to study the subject and appointed a team to come up with a working paper. The team set to work, but the Second Lebanon War began, and the matter fell by the wayside.

In early March, Friedmann renewed his efforts, asking the cabinet secretary to put the issue on its agenda. Peretz, too, began to take action and last week proposed bill on a minimum wage for soldiers. The proposal serves several aims: It suits his worldview, serves his constituency and gives him an opportunity to strike a blow at a political rival, the current defense minister, Ehud Barak. After all, Peretz knows the army will not adopt this idea: It does not want to pay for something it receives nearly free.

The main argument for paying a fair wage to conscripts is discrimination. Why should those who contribute three years of their lives to the country be discriminated against? Is it not enough that soldiers risk their lives and also lose several years, postponing education or work?

The Israel Defense Forces recently announced it is worried by the high number of ultra-Orthodox who are evading the draft. Ten years ago only 4.5 percent of the annual crop of conscripts were released from their obligation on the grounds that the Torah is their profession. Now that figure has risen to 11 percent; in 2020, the numbers will climb to an estimated 25 percent. This is particularly annoying because these young ultra-Orthodox men receive "yeshiva payments" from the state that exceed the salary of a conscript. Of course, there are also secular and Arab citizens who are evading the draft.

Military service costs the conscript in the danger of dying or suffering injury and then the loss of years of income. To minimize the latter and counter discrimination, it is appropriate to pay soldiers a respectable monthly salary, NIS 3,000 per month, for example - a little less than minimum wage. The current injustice in which a drafted soldier earns something ridiculous like NIS 400-700 should stop.

There are soldiers, and not a few, who have to work during their time off to contribute to the family income. In the IDF manpower division there are constant requests from conscripts seeking special leave to work to boost their family's income. A group called A Front and a Home Front for Everyone has received requests from dozens of soldiers for assistance in finding appropriate employment during their time off. Foreign reports give the number of soldiers with such needs as high as 100,000 conscripts.

If we calculate NIS 3,000 per month for each soldier, the annual expense stands at NIS 3.6 billion. But in practice the cost will be only half of this sum. First, we will save the salaries currently being paid and then do away with the grants given to soldiers when they are dismissed from service, which are problematic and distorted because they are conditioned on being spent on specific purposes. The huge bureaucracy that is entailed in the disbursement of these benefits will also be canceled, and this will be pure profit.

There is another important benefit: The payment of NIS 3,000 per month will force the IDF to alter its approach to conscripts. Suddenly it will come to see them as something that costs money, not as a free resource. Today the IDF uses conscripts inefficiently, because they cost nothing. But when every soldier costs NIS 3,000 per month, the IDF will begin to make calculations. Suddenly not only will there be savings in fuel, forcing efficiency in tank usage, for example, but the human resources, the soldiers will also be taken into account.

In such a new situation, the IDF will find it is possible to use its troops in a more efficient way and even make cuts in manpower. Suddenly, it will become clear that it is possible to shorten the duration of mandatory service since every cut is worth money. Cutting the length of service will yield enormous real benefit to the economy, because the real burden of military service is not the monetary payment to the soldiers but the loss to the GDP during the three years those soldiers are neither studying nor working.

Will Peretz and Friedmann manage to cooperate and promote the bill for fair wages for conscripts?