Has Israel Stopped Caring About Its Soldiers?

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IDF officers at work. We need to take their complaints, many of which are sincere, seriously.Credit: IDF Spokesman's Office

It’s not easy to spend time with members of Israel's career army since the government’s Locker committee issued its report on defense spending last week. The faces of friends, acquaintances and relatives who are living on a military pension or are on their way to getting one – even those who won’t be affected if the report's recommendations are adopted – seem to be saying: Ingrates, all of you!

Before one even tries to figure out which of the committee’s recommendations – which, among other things, call for rolling back the Israel Defense Forces' generous pension schemes – disturb these people the most, the arguments begin rolling out of their mouths: We work really hard, at all hours of the day and night, without taking off for the Sabbath or holidays. We protect you so that you can raise your children and live here safely. You’ll drive the best people out of the service if there's no proper pension; who will would stay in the army without one? People signed on because they knew they would get something out of it – how can you get rid of people at age 45 without a pension? Who would hire us?

We need to take these complaints, some of which follow, seriously. They are sincere, and they are being voiced not by generals who have been briefed on what to say, but by people who are much farther down in the rank-and-file line, and don’t have professional advisers telling them what to say.

1. Why are they putting their hands into our pockets?

No one likes it when someone else touches their money, but you, dear career officers, are not alone. Over the past three decades the income gaps in Israel have widened, with certain sectors making great gains while others have fallen behind, to the point where not only home ownership but access to higher education and health services is nearly unattainable. We as a society have had no choice but to redress these inequalities and reduce the cost of living, along with implementing more successful and less successful government reforms, some of which are still under way.

Seaports, water and electricity rates, airlines, banks, public health, cellphone carriers, bank fees, natural gas, food retail, corporate taxation and executive compensation – all of these have been targeted in the name of ensuring a fairer and more equal economy.

Everyone who stood to lose as a result of these reforms put up a fight. Some of them are winning, at least for now. Now it’s your turn, career officers. You didn’t do anything wrong: It’s just that Israel’s defense spending continues to grow every year, unchecked and without transparency, and also because the military’s pension arrangements and costs have become out of control by any measure.

2. Don’t people who serve in the military deserve more?

The most common complaint I hear is that any cuts to retirement pay will drive the best people away from the career army. It makes one wonder whether the pension is what keeps people there. Of course it doesn't. Many enjoy the opportunity to manage large systems, to specialize in fascinating realms, to derive a sense of satisfaction from work and, in many cases, from a big leg up to very profitable jobs in civilian life, whether in the private or public sectors.

The ethos of military service justifiably gives career servicemen and servicewomen a unique sense of worth. It is vital to maintain this ethos, but that cannot depend on pensions that are far more generous than those of any other economic sector.

Another argument I hear often is that the absolute commitment of career army people to their work, 24/7, justifies higher pay and pensions. This is not an argument to be dismissed lightly. Work around the clock does deserve special consideration. But in civilian life, too, you can find more than a few people who work long hours not just to earn a prize, but simply because that’s what is demanded of their job — especially in the era of individualism and careerism that began in Israel in the late 1980s. Not to mention low wage earners who hold down two or three jobs under difficult conditions as a matter of survival, not of careerism per se.

It must be noted that the Locker committee is not exactly kicking career army people to the curb. Its recommendations do take away the right of some of them to retire on a pension in their 40s, but it also gives them bonuses that are considerably higher than any in civilian life, with the exception of banking and insurance executives.

Sent to pasture

3. How can you just toss aside members of the career army?

How can someone be sent into civilian life at the age of 45 without a pension? This is an important point, perhaps the most important of all the arguments advanced by those serving in the career army.

The very question points to a certain disconnect from civilian life in Israel. The issues of early pensions, budgetary (defined-benefit) pensions and job security affect the entire public sector in the country, especially the army. In these organizations, a norm developed according to which anyone who is “sent home” before retirement age is given a generous severance package. There are more than a few people in Israel who have taken early retirement from government organizations such as the Bank of Israel, the ports and arms manufacturers with a severance package that can exceed one million shekels ($250,000), or with a lifetime pension.

That doesn’t happen in the private sector, except for the banks and other former government institutions. In regular civilian life, if someone goes home at age 45 it’s with the usual severance terms, plus another month or two of salary if the employer is particularly generous.

The Locker panel's recommendation is to send military officers to the civilian job market with generous bonuses instead of a so-called bridging pension between early retirement and the regular retirement age. It’s not pleasant to look for work at age 45, when it’s hard to find a job, but that’s a problem that is not unique to former career officers. The government absolutely must address this argument and take action to mitigate the problem, which is growing in severity together with the population's growing longevity. But even after the Locker recommendations are adopted, veterans of the career army will be in a much better position in this regard than most other workers.

We don’t yet know whether the Locker proposals will actually be implemented, but it can be hoped that if they are, they will prod the government into thinking about solutions that won’t turn 45-year-olds (with or without big bonuses and pensions) into lame ducks in the job market. The reduction of the social safety nets for certain groups makes it necessary to strengthen the safety nets protecting everyone. Without such safeguards, the government will continue to run into fierce opposition from any sector that it tries to reform through downsizing, the introduction of competition or by eliminating unwarranted privileges.

If the world is a jungle, one can only sympathize with the port and Israel Electric Corporation workers, the career servicemen and all the other overprivileged workers who don’t want to be sent into it without proper padding and protection.

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