Israel's New Finance Chief Might Hurt the Army, Too

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Finance Minister Avigdor Lieberman at a faction meeting of the Yisrael Beiteinu party, in May.

Only two weeks have passed since Avigdor Lieberman became finance minister and promised to breathe new life into the battered ministry. He promised to lead reforms and return the battle spirit to the ministry’s professionals while fully cooperating with them.

“As far as I’m concerned, there’s no such thing as ‘treasury clerks,’” he declared, referring to his predecessor’s disparaging of the ministry’s experts. But this week it emerged that he has failed the first real test that came his way.

Finance Ministry employees learned Sunday evening from the media that their minister had secretly agreed with Defense Minister Benny Gantz to walk back the proposal to shorten compulsory service in the Israel Defense Forces. According to the reports, the two even came to “understandings” about amending the current law to lengthen compulsory service for men. This would reverse the Knesset’s 2015 decision to reduce compulsory service to 30 months from 36, which went into effect last year.

Not only would this move contradict the treasury’s longtime position that compulsory service must be shortened, it flies in the face of conclusions by special committees established in Israel over the past 20 years that examined the length of military service. These panels recommended shortening service to 24 months while lengthening service to various degrees for those in specialized roles.

The consequences of this reversal would erase billions of shekels from Israel’s gross domestic product due to the delayed integration of tens of thousands of young people into the job market, as well as the extra expense of maintaining soldiers for a period of service that isn’t necessary, particularly in the rear echelon.

Moreover, the move would worsen the problem of hidden unemployment in the IDF since, according to forecasts by the Central Bureau of Statistics, the potential recruits at the military’s disposal will surge 34 percent by 2030. The move is also likely to reduce the motivation to serve, which is already low. Today, half the country’s 18-year-olds don’t wind up serving at all.

Rather than help the IDF streamline its staffing management and adapt it for the 21st century, Lieberman chose to make one of the army’s most intractable problems worse and deepen the budget hole that defense officials create every year. Moreover, Lieberman and Gantz made a decision that has dramatic economic, social and security ramifications without involving the professionals or a data-based discussion.

Lieberman’s promises upon entering the Finance Ministry require him to act transparently, to cooperate with his subordinates and not to undermine them. Above all, he must faithfully fulfill his role as guardian of the public purse.

The above article is Haaretz’s lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.

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