Defense Minister Benny Gantz this week transformed a pension increase in the Israel Defense Forces into a matter endangering the government. Gantz is frustrated about the obstacles the left flank of his coalition has placed against a bill on the issue following an agreement he reached last year with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and Finance Minister Avigdor Lieberman.
“The IDF and its soldiers are under fire domestically,” Gantz said in a speech. “That’s a security danger. The populist attitude toward the career personnel has become packed with lies to the point of being a blood libel. Blame for this lies above all with the leadership that’s showing understanding for those who seek to dismantle the IDF.”
The frequent describing – including in Haaretz – of IDF officers as thieves looting – or pigs feeding – from the public coffers is indeed evil. But the arguments by Gantz and IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi are also unpersuasive. The way they’ve turned the dispute into a political story could boomerang on them.
It’s far from certain that this is the hill the IDF needs to take at this moment. Gantz and Kochavi could set off a further decline in confidence in the army. The reactions to the IDF's position are already harsh on both the right and the left.
A 2016 state comptroller's report found serious flaws regarding the pension increases. For example, benefits for certain retirees wound up going to 98 percent of career army people, amid an outrageous 15 percent increase on average.
Last year, Kochavi cobbled together an alternative plan that reduces the increase to 9 percent for combat personnel and 7 percent for noncombat personnel. I thought then that it was a mistake for the army to choose this plan at the height of the economic crisis generated by the pandemic. It turned out that the chief of staff was right and I was wrong: Gantz and Kochavi got the decision approved without difficulty by the requisite forum of ministers, exploiting the coalition partners’ dependence on Gantz’s Kahol Lavan party.
But then the two left-wing parties in the coalition, Meretz and Labor, raised difficulties. The other parties also aren’t rushing to fulfill their commitment to Gantz and the army. Time is pressing because the state must reply to a High Court of Justice petition on the pensions by the end of the month.
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The Labor Party chief, Transportation Minister Merav Michaeli, wants the pension issue to be discussed before the bill comes up for the first of three votes in the Knesset. Gantz insists that the bill be submitted as is, with any discussion on revisions later. Bennett is groping for a compromise but hasn’t yet moved to placate the left – nor has Kahol Lavan, surprising Michaeli.
For the IDF, the pension issue is a crisis. At a recent General Staff meeting it was remarked that “all the red lights on the dashboard are on.” The main problem lies with the majors and the lieutenant colonels, who at age 30-plus are thinking about moving up their retirement. Last year a record 457 majors left, some of them outstanding officers.
The problem is more flagrant in combat-support professions but is also being felt in the combat units. The General Staff attributes part of the change to the insecurity officers feel in the current career-army model where only one of every 11 career soldiers will have a full pension upon retirement.
This is a worry, but it’s not certain that its solution lies in the pension increases. Young people are leaving their jobs throughout the economy, and also in the other security organizations, a development in part related to the two-year pandemic. Also, it’s more urgent for young noncombat officers to receive a proper salary than pension benefits that won’t arrive for a generation.
In a recent security cabinet meeting, Kochavi launched into a long speech on the need to maintain quality people in the IDF, considering the threats Israel faces. The ministers suspected that he was referring to the pension dispute. Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz of Meretz reminded Kochavi that there are other urgent needs. Gantz took umbrage and came out in defense of the army.
In their battle over pensions, the minister and the chief of staff are taking the IDF for a long ride that might generate another social protest movement. They might be taking a bad gamble.
Kochavi’s dominance in his fourth year as chief of staff is clear in his conversations with politicians. A few weeks ago, at a different security cabinet meeting, a dispute broke out between Kochavi and Public Security Minister Omer Bar-Lev of the Labor Party. The issue: the IDF’s law-enforcement powers in the West Bank.
At issue was the question of whether soldiers may detain Israelis involved in crimes against Palestinians. In the background were the accusations between the army and the police concerning settler violence. Among the Israel Police’s subdivisions, the force in the West Bank has the fewest resources.
At the same time, IDF officers and soldiers aren’t eager to clash with violent Israelis. After a leak from the security cabinet, the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit issued a clarification that soldiers possess policing powers against Jews, though in this sphere the army operates as an auxiliary to the police.
Following the report, which appeared on the Walla news website, the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee took up the issue. The IDF maintained that although soldiers possess enforcement powers, “holistic responsibility” for law enforcement in the West Bank devolves to the police.
Like other IDF responses, this one looks like an attempt to defend a stance that’s hard to defend, one that was adopted by the chief of staff. At the meeting, Idit Shafran Gittleman of the Israel Democracy Institute took issue with the IDF’s position. There is no such thing as “holistic responsibility,” she said, rightly, adding that under international law, overall responsibility is with the military commander on the ground, and if the police don’t do their job effectively, responsibility reverts to the commander.
Following a series of harsh incidents recently, Gantz and Kochavi made clear that soldiers must not stand idly by when inappropriate violence occurs. But as everyone who talks about this with officers in the field knows, they and their troops will never wield identical force against a violent Palestinian and a violent Israeli, and no legal hairsplitting will solve this problem.
With or without any connection, readers of the IDF’s website this week were surprised to discover that the document on the military's strategy had disappeared. The document was drawn up under the previous chief of staff, Gadi Eisenkot, following a great deal of work. It was a first attempt, daring for its time, to spell out the army’s relationship with the government. The website recently underwent a face-lift, and the document is gone.
The IDF Spokesperson’s Unit told Haaretz that during the changeover, some of the content from 2018 to 2020 had not yet been uploaded and will hit the site in the next six months. Well, we’ll keep watching.