Here’s a question. Which emergency scenario would cause more deaths in Israel: a major missile attack or a major earthquake?
Obviously, there is no definitive answer to the question. Instinctively people would tend to be less afraid of a missile attack, because when the siren goes off, they can take shelter. Although there are safety procedures to be taken in a quake, there isn’t the same warning system, but apparently the probability of a missile attack in Israel’s current geopolitical situation is greater.
On the other hand, the threat is clearly not six times greater, but the government has earmarked 5 billion shekels ($1.4 billion) for reinforcing buildings against earthquakes but has a plan to spend between 15 to 30 billion shekels on anti-missile defense systems. Yet again Israel seems to be overemphasizing military risks and underestimating civilian risks.
Last week State Comptroller Joseph Shapira’s office reported that only three of the 70 bridges that have needed reinforcement against earthquakes have actually been reinforced; only 50 of the 2,400 schools that need reinforcement have actually been dealt with; only a fifth of the funds earmarked for reinforcing hospitals have actually been spent; and gas, water and electricity infrastructure has not been reinforced at all. And the list goes on.
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Meanwhile billions get allocated for military defense. When a Syrian military jet intrudes on the Golan Heights border, as occurred this week, or when incendiary kites are flown over the Gaza border into Israeli border areas, as has been a regular occurrence recently, it is apparently hopeless to expect cool-headed discussion of budget priorities.
In late 2015, the defense and finance ministers at the time, Moshe Ya’alon and Moshe Kahlon respectively, struck an agreement over a five-year budget for the military. Designed to ensure military funding for five years, the Kahlon-Ya’alon agreement turned out to be a sort of minimum: the army could ask for more.
The problem isn’t only that the budgetary ceiling of the Kahlon-Ya’alon agreement has been crassly breached. The commitments the army made in return may also not be honored. The army had agreed to concessions regarding transparency when it comes to salaries, agreed to cut pension costs by reducing the number of career officers and to cut the cost of “bridging” pensions, covering veterans from age 42 to the general retirement age.
But the average pension payment in the army is more than 18,000 shekels a month, and many doubt the army’s will or ability to reduce that by 40%, as promised, while halving the number of officers reaching retirement age by 50%.
The problem isn’t just the army’s intentions. Yet again the agreement struck between the Finance Ministry and the military was worded vaguely and is open to interpretation. This had happened before, in the agreement signed in 2008 transitioning officers from defined benefit pensions paid entirely by the taxpayer, to defined payment pensions, where benefits are paid out of a pension fund. The careless wording back then has resulted in benefits from pension fund system – mainly “bridging” pensions – that are expected to be higher than the defined benefit pensions that career soldiers have been getting. That had led to quite the squabble within the Finance Ministry, where the accountant general has accused the budget department of signing horribly complex pension and wage agreements without consulting the experts in other ministry departments.
So the other ministry departments did get involved in formulating the Kahlon-Ya’alon agreement, but it didn’t really help. Again the drafting seems to have been careless and again the two sides to the agreement interpret things very differently.
For instance, the agreement promises bridging pensions to soldiers from the time they leave the army until they become entitled to their regular pensions, but what age is that? The army says it’s 67, the official retirement age (for men). The budget department at the Finance Ministry thinks the bridge should end at the youngest age at which entitlement to pension fund payments can begin: age 60.
At 12,000 shekels a month, that seven-year difference, paid to tens of thousands of people, becomes an enormous payout. The budget department is wrong. The claim that 60 is the earliest age for pension entitlement may be legally accurate, but it’s economically ludicrous. It also conflicts with the traditional position of the budget department itself, which correctly urges that the retirement age be raised, in part because withdrawing pension benefits early destroys the prospect of a decent retirement.
But another dispute is entirely the army’s fault. After it turned out that the defined payment pension through a retirement fund gives career army veterans a higher payout than the present taxpayer-funded defined benefit, the budget department turned leery and an agreement was therefore struck limiting benefits to the lower of the two calculations. But that means coming to agreement on those figures.
And then there is the possible totally crazy controversy over the commitment by the army to reduce the average pension payment to 12,000 per month by 2025. It is at the heart of the Ya’alon-Kahlon agreement, and the Defense Ministry confirms that the army understands the intent.
For its part, the Defense Ministry responded in part that the army’s position on regulations regarding bridging pensions was clear to the Finance Ministry all along and that 67 is the general retirement age for men. “In addition, this is accepted for all retirement agreements in the public sector. Any other interpretation neutralizes the bridging principle .” And the Defense Ministry added: “The Finance Ministry’s position lowers the level of benefits by tens of percent and constitutes a blatant violation of the spirit of the agreement.”