Knesset to Vote on Benefits, Shorter Duty for IDF Reservists

Legislation approving benefits, affirmative action for reserve soldiers expected to pass second, third readings in Knesset this week.

Legislation approving benefits for reserve soldiers is expected to pass second and third readings in the Knesset this week after five years of debate. The most important provision allows for affirmative action in favor of reservists in such areas as tax benefits, university scholarships and university dorms.

"The government and any other body may hold activities and set regulations rewarding reserve soldiers or demonstrating esteem toward them. Such an action...will not be seen as forbidden discrimination," the law says.

Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnay sees this clause as "the heart of the law." MK Avshalom Vilan (Meretz), who fought for the legislation, is far less enthusiastic. "It's very problematic constitutionally," he says. "Why should someone who served in reserve duty have priority over an Arab who has no money?" he asked.

The Military Reserve Law began as two proposals, cabinet and private, submitted by 30 Knesset members. The initial cabinet proposal said that an army veteran who is not called for duty within two years will be exempt from reserve duty. This meant eliminating the reserves as the people's army and turning it into an army of one fifth of the people.

The hurdle was eventually bypassed and the bill now stipulates that the IDF may release those it does not need - the same as today. The bill still heralds the end of the people's army, Vilan said, because the more benefits are granted to more reservists, the more expensive it will become to call them for duty, so the army will call up fewer men. "Only the good regiments will be called up. This is already happening," Vilan said.

Vilnay said that one of the law's main innovations is requiring the defense minister and the chief of staff to report annually to the cabinet and Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee about the reserve force, its size, fitness, equipment and number of reserve days expected each given year.

Today the minister and chief of staff can mobilize all the reservists with an emergency callup order, requiring no supervision. From now on they will need the cabinet's, or at least the prime minister's, approval as well as that of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee within 48 hours.

One of the proposal's goals is to limit the number of reserve duty days each man must put in per year - 54 days per soldier in three years (an average of 18 days a year); 70 for a non-commissioned officer (23 a year) and 84 per officer (24 a year). Some of this time must be spent in training.

This appears at first like a great improvement. But Itay Landsberg, of the forum of regiment and brigade commanders and pilots, says that holes in the law make it possible to call for a 36-day service a year - which would leave today's situation unchanged.

Vilnay's people said this would only apply to special professions such as pilots and doctors.

He said the law adds NIS 800 million a year to the military budget. About half a billion shekels will be financed by the Defense Ministry, following Defense Minister Ehud Barak's decision, which enables passing the legislation.

Vilan said some of the money is already being given some reserve soldiers, so only an additional NIS 400 million need be budgeted. Even he admits that "this is quite a bit of money."

Until today reservists who did not work, or worked for a very low salary, received compensation from the National Insurance Institute equivalent to the minimum wage. Once the legislation goes into effect, they will get paid 68 percent of the average wage, some NIS 5,300. The reservists asked for 100 percent of the average wage, but Landsberg says this, too, is an improvement.

Those who serve more than 15 days a year will receive from the Tax Authorities a sum equivalent to two credit points, which cuold reach NIS 4,000 a year. This is an impressive benefit.

However, Landsberg found that the state intends to charge them 25 percent income tax.

The defense establishment says the new system doubles the payment for some reserve days by 1.4, thus improving the reservists' situation. The reservists say these sums are negligible.