For Disabled Israeli Children, Nothing. For Army Pensions, $340 Million

Nehemia Shtrasler
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Disabled Israelis protesting on a highway in Tel Aviv.
Nehemia Shtrasler

For months, organizations representing the disabled have been protesting across the country. They’ve blocked roads and stopped trains, demanding that an agreement with them to increase allowances for the disabled be put into force. More recently, they’ve added to their demands: to increase allowances paid to disabled children, whose care can be quite costly.

The treasury responded that there’s no money in the budget. But actually there’s 1.1 billion shekels ($340 million) budgeted to pay for an increase in pensions for career army officers. Disabled activists suggested taking 350 million shekels of that for disabled children.

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The pension increase is known as “the chief of staff increase” and is a scandal whether or not it’s coming at the expense of the disabled.

Decades ago, an agreement was reached with the chief of staff that pensions for career officers could be increased if “economic or other conditions justified it” – that is, only under very special circumstances. But generations of chiefs of staff have used the loophole to increase pensions by no less than 98 percent.

The chiefs of staff have inflated pensions via two mechanisms. The first is classic Israbluff: adding three years of mandatory service to a career officer’s defined years of service, thereby adding 6 percent to his or her pension. The second mechanism is called the “chief of staff grant,” which can add another 6 percent. This week, the cabinet agreed to give an official imprimatur to this dubious practice and make it completely legal.

Today, the average retirement age from the Israel Defense Forces is 47, meaning a career soldier with 26 years of service is entitled to a pension equal to 52 percent of his or her salary. But under the new arrangement, this number will be 61 percent.

It should be noted that military pay is very generous, so the average pension will reach 19,000 shekels a month. That compares with a teacher, for instance, who when retiring at 60 gets a monthly pension of just 7,500 shekels.

But that’s not all. The IDF also offers a “bridge pension” that covers a retiree from age 47 to 67, at which point his or her regular pension kicks in. This fringe benefit exists nowhere else in the public or private sector – a pension that begins at the young age of 47.

That bridge pension is worth millions. The value of a career soldier’s pension on average is 7.7 million shekels, compared with just 1.7 million for other civil servants. A teacher’s pension on average is worth 2 million.

At the cabinet meeting, Chief of Staff Avi Kochavi – who’s basically the head of the most powerful workers’ committee in the land – said military salaries are “a lot lower” than in the civilian world. That’s not true. The chief of staff’s monthly pay is 98,000 shekels. A general gets 68,000 and a brigadier general 56,000. But even lower-ranking officers do well: A major earns 27,000, a lieutenant colonel 32,000 and a colonel 41,000.

If we were only talking about combat officers, that would be okay. They deserve it. They work around the clock and risk their lives. But these pay levels also apply to noncombat officers, who constitute two-thirds of the officers in the IDF.

Seven ministers, headed by Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar, opposed the new pension arrangement and spoke loudly against it at the cabinet meeting. They wouldn’t accept sanitizing something that was illegal. But they stood no chance against Defense Minister Benny Gantz, Finance Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett. The latter two will pay dearly by having to make cuts elsewhere in the budget.

Already today, high pay and generous pension schemes eat up half the defense budget. That’s too big an outlay, and it comes at the expense of both the army’s military strength and money for civilian needs, like allowances for disabled children. For them, there’s no money; for military pensions, there is.

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