Taking Stock / Bubble Boys Up in Arms

The Israeli army is rattling its sabers.

This week, a top Israel Defense Forces officer summoned the nation's economics editors for a talk on the defense budget, to rebut the "campaign," as he put it, against the army.

That "campaign" is evidently some study or other published on the profligate wage and pension schemes in the army, and the recurring news stories about the treasury's plans to slash back the defense budget because of the economic situation, coupled with the changes in the Middle East.

At the start of his talk, the officer listed the threats Israel still faces, from afar and nearby, conventional and nonconventional, from armies and terrorists. In all cases, the key phrase was, "security costs money."

"The IDF," explained the officer, "is constantly improving its efficiency. Three thousand career officers retired in the last few years and another 6,000 officers and civilians working for the army are expected to retire" over the coming years.

"We understand the world has changed, so we are preparing to reform the pension schemes, too. A panel headed by (reserves) colonel Amos Malka has been named. It will propose how to change the army pension plans," the officer said.

Moreover, when the army saw that Israelis were coping with the civilian loss of life, it understood that the chief danger of the intifada was economic in nature. "Can the economy weather the crisis?" the officer continued. "We ourselves initiated moves to cut the budget based on the change in the regional security situation, on technological advances, and budget constraints."

There was also a pile of slides on the table showing defense expenditure over the years, compared with costs elsewhere in the world.

The slides all showed the same story: wage costs in the IDF are dropping and are low by international standards; the ratio between the bureaucracy and the warriors is the best in the world; and the ratio between the generals and soldiers is the lowest.

The chief of staff's financial adviser is a champion. At preparing slides, that is. The entire Israeli army is second to none at preparing slides. But when it comes to addressing the real facts, the much-vaunted Israeli army is as helpless as a babe in arms.

The officer fielded a question: With the economy in crisis, with poverty spreading and the standard of living eroding, is it right for thousands of noncoms and officers, from lieutenants to generals, to retire at age 42 to 50 with full pension benefits?

Sergeant majors get pensions of NIS 4 million, lieutenant generals get NIS 5 million to NIS 7 million, colonels and brigadier generals in the elite corps, or who otherwise have preferred status, get NIS 7 million to NIS 12 million. Is that not an economic absurdity screaming for rectification?

Does the chief of staff, who himself called the economic crisis the biggest threat to Israel today, not deem it an economic absurdity, and iniquity, to give "deskbound soldiers" pensions that are three to four times the norm for comparable jobs in the business sector?

To which the officer responds: "I can't deal with those figures," and refers us to the chief of staff's financial counsel.

And that is the whole story in a nutshell. Our host was not evading or being manipulative. The chiefs of Israel's army, and the politicians who originated from the army's ranks, are utterly detached from the economic reality, from developments in the business sector, from real life. They are living in a bubble.

It never occurred to them to do a little math that any third-grader could do. Let us have a stab at it.

The pension of a colonel, even if his weapon is a sword, ranges from NIS 15,000 to NIS 20,000 a month. Say he retired at 45 and has another 20-25 years in which he could work, and another 35-40 to live. Now: NIS 15,000 times 12 times 35 gives us NIS 6.3 million. And that doesn't include interest and linkage of his pension to army wages.

So much for colonels. What about sergeant majors? They also get millions.

Would any of them be eligible for anything close to that in the civilian marketplace? We think not. Few people in the ex-army arena get to retire at age 42 or 45 with pension rights like that.

Warriors who sacrifice the best years of their lives, or their lives, to protecting us all should be remunerated. But nobody sees the problem in sumptuous army wage and pension payments going to people whose jobs, however important, are no more important than those of people in the civilian sector.

A psychologist working for the army gets twice the pension of a psychologist working for the state. An army economist gets twice or thrice the salary and pension benefits of the average business sector economist. That is the issue at stake, not Iran's Shihab missiles or the Syrian front or Hezbollah. Salaries that are divorced from Israel's economic reality do not make the army stronger or better, only fatter.

It is time for the top brass and Defense Ministry and cabinet to acknowledge the results of the simple math. It is time to acknowledge the economic reality and pension standards outside the bubble. It is time to answer the question of exactly how much each career soldier costs us, how much a citizen with comparable skills costs, and what the ratio between the soldier's and Joe Citizen's remuneration should be.

Guy Rolnik's column will return in 10 weeks' time.