Every year, deciding on Israel's defense budget for year to come triggers bitter battles. The defense budget for 2014 was nearly 51 billion shekels - 50,852,073,000 shekels to be precise. Following Operation Protective Edge, actual expenditure on the Israel Defense Forces and security seems likely to reach 59 billion.
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For the sake of historical perspective, let's note that the defense establishment has overspent its budget every year since 2009 by about 17%. For the sake of national perspective, the country’s total budget for 2014 was 438 billion shekels, and that the current assessment of the state’s revenue in 2014 is 405 billion.
Like a household's overdraft, a country’s overdraft carries a heavy price. And over the weekend, the prime minister and finance minister reached concord on giving defense 6 billion shekels more in 2015.
Fifty-one billion shekels is a lot of money and 57 billion is even more. Does the military establishment bring added value to Israel, beyond security, of course? What parts of it should we protect and perhaps even strengthen, when budgets are being pared left, right and center?
Beyond security: The great equalizer
If we ask the dozens of non-profit organizations working with disadvantaged children and teenagers in Israel to gauge "success," almost all say it is their graduates' integration into the army.
For disadvantages kids, advancing directly from an orphanage (or as they're called here, "boarding schools") or the streets to adult life is devastating. It's incredibly hard for a person of any age to start from the economic periphery and integrate into society and find a good job without a support system; at age 18 it's practically impossible, let alone if draft-dodging is added to other stigmas.
Integration into the army provides a support system, and much more beyond. Not the least is that the former soldiers reach the job market with one less stigma, and somewhat older and more mature, with more life experience. Moreover, he's proven his ability to integrate, and has become more familiar with the broader layers of Israeli society. Some even begin post-army civilian life with marketable skills.
People are people, and even in the army there are people with prejudices, particularly when it comes to preliminary placement. But the army is also an amazing opportunity in being an equalizer: everybody wears the same uniform, must perform the same tasks and very few know about the background (for better or worse) of everybody else. Those with potential receive opportunities that are hard to create in other systems.
Startup Nation hothouse
Moreover, the army's contribution to "Startup Nation" is clear. Look at the areas in which the first significant startups to come out of Israel engaged in: telecommunications, data security, optics and image processing. These are still core fields among the most successful Israeli companies to date, and have produced global companies such as ECI Telecom, Check Point Software Technologies, Elbit Systems, Ophir Optronics and Mobileye — and many more.
What other system could locate the best students from the entire population, give them advanced courses (under strict disciplinary conditions), and then employ them for three to four years at a negligible cost?
Moreover, each development can be examined under laboratory conditions and in the field, from small-scale to massive use, at no cost.
The army and the defense industry not only grow and develop software engineers and computer geniuses. They also provide theoretical and practical training (which Israel sorely lacks in other frameworks, in all areas of industry) in skills from welding and milling to engineering. Moreover, they can provide young adults with employment within the defense industry.
Israel's army and various security services provide many thousands of jobs to all layers of society from laundry and food service to maintenance and construction.
Even the army’s laundry facilities can serve as a launching pad for development.
Last week I heard about an experimental ironing plant that was set up in one of the laundry facilities in Israel to replace 30 civilian workers in the army. Sometimes bad comes along with the good, but if the army’s development platform were leveraged in the cleantech and medical fields, that might well provide Israeli society with a wonderful stimulus.
Does Israel really want a small and professional army, an army that focuses exclusively on borders and striking at the enemy?
Quite a few European countries facing no threats whatsoever maintain armies as a stage of growth, a melting pot. Here in Israel, the idea of the army as a springboard into adult society has been developed more than anywhere else on earth, for the betterment of the people and the country.
Maybe instead of cutting the budget, we should think about ways to do it better, about how to turn that idea into an effective civilian platform that helps people move forward.
Elah Alkalay is VP Business Development at IBI Investment House and serves as on the board of The New Israel Fund and of Ma'aleh. Elah also chairs and co-founded "Invest in you" a financial forum for women.