Israeli Defense Minister, Army Chief Make Extra Funds Condition for Coronavirus Aid

Officials say Gantz and Kochavi seeking to pad benefits for retired officers, shirk responsibility for paying for coronavirus efforts while Israelis are struggling

Yaniv Kubovich
Yaniv Kubovich
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Home Front Command soldiers providing coronavirus information in Tiberias, September 29, 2020.
Home Front Command soldiers providing coronavirus information in Tiberias, September 29, 2020.Credit: Gil Eliahu
Yaniv Kubovich
Yaniv Kubovich

Government officials are accusing the defense minister and the IDF chief of staff of conditioning the army’s assistance in fighting the coronavirus pandemic on receiving extra funds on top of the regular defense budget.

Moreover, they charge, at a time when ordinary Israelis are suffering economically, the two defense chiefs are seeking benefits for retired officers that will cost around 1 billion shekels ($290 million) a year. These benefits are opposed by the Finance and Justice Ministries.

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Both Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi have claimed the army is sparing neither money nor personnel in fighting the virus. But a source who has attended meetings where decisions were made said that in reality, “It’s all coming from funding sources outside the defense budget” even as “the health system is fighting for every shekel.”

Specifically, he said, the IDF received 700 million shekels to set up a contact tracing system and a similar amount for other purposes including setting up so-called coronavirus hotels and calling up reservists.

Then-IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz (R) and Aviv Kochavi, when he was commander of the Northern Command, in 2014.Credit: rami shllush

This is particularly galling, critics said, because the Defense Ministry already has the highest budget of any government ministry.

Moreover, due to the pandemic, the army has significantly reduced its operational activities and reserve duty this year. This has saved it money, and some cabinet members ask why that money can’t be used for its coronavirus operations.

But the army doesn’t see this as part of its job. “As far as the army is concerned, anything connected to civilians is a favor they’re doing,” one senior official said.

Critics are also outraged by the army’s demands for extra funding for purposes unrelated to the pandemic. In August, for instance, even as infection rates soared, Kochavi demanded additional funding for the army’s multiyear plan. The cabinet hasn’t approved the plan yet, but sources involved in the issue said Gantz and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agreed on an additional 2 billion shekels for military preparedness.

An even more outrageous example occurred September 24, the day Israel’s second lockdown began. That day, Gantz wrote to Netanyahu and Finance Minister Yisrael Katz to request funds to cover an increase in career officers’ pensions of thousands of shekels a month – at a cost to the state exceeding 1 billion shekels a year.

The letter noted that the requested increase “sparked a dispute between the defense establishment and the finance minister.” In part, that’s because it involves a maneuver that has been harshly criticized by the state comptroller, under which officers are treated as if they have served more time in the army than they actually did so as to increase their pension rights. The law allows this in special cases, but the IDF awards this benefit to 98 percent of officers.

Home Front Command soldiers perform contact tracing at the command headquarters in Ramle, September 29, 2020.Credit: Gil Cohen-Magen

Government officials warned that the army’s insistence on padding officers’ pensions at a time when hundreds of thousands of Israelis have lost their jobs could undermine public trust in the IDF.

Moreover, they said, it’s absurd for the army to claim that fighting the pandemic is not part of its mission, since assisting in civilian emergencies is part of the Home Front Command’s job. One defense source said this behavior could lead the government to abolish the command in favor of a civilian emergency management system.

The IDF countered that the coronavirus isn’t a short-term problem, and the army can’t finance long-term efforts against the virus without impairing its core functions. Moreover, it said, the pandemic has made some of these core functions more expensive. For instance, to keep combat units operational, soldiers must be kept on base; otherwise, they might well get infected at home and then infect others when they return.

But none of this adequately explains why, for instance, the army can’t cover calling up 2,000 reservists for coronavirus work, given that the cancelation of training exercises and curtailment of operational activity have led it to cancel reserve duty for tens of thousands of others.

The IDF also argues that the threats against Israel haven’t changed, and therefore, the multiyear plan remains necessary, albeit with some changes. But according to Military Intelligence’s own assessment, the virus has curbed enemy activity.

Gantz’s office said in a statement that the army is “fully engaged in the war on the coronavirus and is investing many resources in it, including both draftees and career personnel.” Nevertheless, it insisted, this effort requires additional funding.

Regarding the pension increase, it said Gantz’s letter was sent just then because a court was due to hear a petition on the issue and set a deadline for the government’s response. It also insisted that the increase would cost only 25 million shekels a year.

But in reality, that’s the annual increase on account of new retirees alone, not the total cost.

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