A soldier in the career army who apparently had a troubled conscience sent us a letter he received in early December from the Israel Defense Forces' Personnel Directorate. The letter detailed the changes the IDF had decided to make in its policy of subsidizing hotels for vacations by career soldiers and their families in 2013.
"Despite the economic situation, the General Staff has decided to improve [conditions] for the individual and has approved a significant budget supplement in the area of vacations, which will allow the addition of thousands of rooms in desirable and good hotels," the letter stated, with the words "significant budget supplement" emphasized in bold letters.
The letter listed two main changes. One is expanding the list of luxury hotels that career soldiers can choose from for their subsidized vacations. The second is raising the amount the IDF will pay to subsidize these hotel rooms for the soldiers and their families.
It is impossible to know from the letter how much the rate was raised or what the previous rate was, only how much the IDF is now paying to subsidize the hotel rooms.
The list of luxury hotels on offer for the professional soldier includes nine hotels. Seven are in Eilat: Dan Eilat, Hilton Queen of Sheba, Herods, Coral Beach, Royal Beach, Royal Garden and Agamim. The other two are the Bereshit Hotel in Mitzpeh Ramon and the Carmel Forest Spa. Soldiers may take an IDF-subsidized vacation in these luxury hotels only once every three years, as opposed to an annual stay in a regular hotel.
The price the soldier and his family must pay per night in these luxury hotels ranges from NIS 200 in a regular hotel to NIS 400 to NIS 800 in one of the luxury hotels in high season - i.e., during the summer holidays or other holidays throughout the year.
These prices, NIS 200 to NIS 800, are for the entire family of two parents and up to five children.
And there is one group that pays even less: Officers in combat units will pay at most NIS 200 per night for the entire family at any hotel, at any time of the year.
Cost to the taxpayer
TheMarker decided to see how much it would cost an average Israeli family, two parents and three children, to stay in those same nine luxury hotels in high season. The prices ranged from NIS 2,500 a night to NIS 5,000. The prices offered to career army soldiers are thus 70% to 90% lower than the market price.
Of course, the IDF pays does not pay the market price, or anything close to it. As one of the biggest purchasers of services and goods in Israel, the IDF naturally receives big discounts on just about everything, including hotel rooms. So we wondered: How much is the IDF really subsidizing vacations for its soldiers and their families? And how much in total does this subsidy cost the IDF every year?
Actually, the question is how much does this cost us, the taxpayer, every year? After all, who pays for the defense budget?
To our great regret, our investiga
tors were unable to answer these questions. The IDF Spokesman's Office simply refused to answer a different question, which we didn't ask: What is the amount of the IDF subsidy for every career soldier - as opposed to the proportion of the vacation paid for by the IDF. The spokesman's office also used this as an excuse not to answer the other question, about the total budget for the subsidized hotel stays for professional soldiers and their families, claiming it would then be possible to calculate the "secret" figure of how many career soldiers there are in the IDF based on the budget data.
A military secret
All our claims that this was a deliberate attempt to hide the budget figures, as well as a violation of the Freedom of Information Law and improper behavior for a public institution, were dismissed. The IDF Spokesman refused to answer simple questions: What percentage of the cost of the vacations is subsidized and how much do the hotel stays cost the IDF in total? Also, how much did this budget grow from 2012 to 2013?
Lacking data, we can only guess at the reason the IDF Spokesman refuses to reveal the numbers. The reason is based on our estimates of the vacation budget for career soldiers: at least NIS 100 million a year, which comes out of the defense budget.
True, NIS 100 million is only a small percentage of a total defense budget of NIS 60 billion, but the figures do support our main claim about the IDF's financial conduct: The section of the budget that has expanded the most in recent decades is that for salary, pensions and other manpower costs, including those for disabled veterans.
Personnel now accounts for over 50% of the shekel-based part of the IDF's budget - over NIS 23 billion. The non-shekel-based part of the budget is mostly U.S. military aid, which must be spent in the United States. The IDF Spokesman's refusal to answer our questions further proves our conclusions regarding a lack of transparency in defense spending, and how much this lack of transparency encourages inefficiency and waste.
A budget that is managed in the dark will always be less efficient and less reasonable than an open budget subject to public criticism. The IDF Spokesman's insistence on not giving the public figures that the IDF is legally required to reveal sends a clear message about how the entire IDF budget is managed - and about the benefits granted to professional soldiers.
Whoever hid this data probably had good reason to do so. And the public has good reason not to trust them.