Taking Stock / Rooting Out the Cancer

What is the most burning question in Israel's legal circles today? Is it the constitution? Some Supreme Court precedent? A breakthrough ruling at the District Court?

What is the most burning question in Israel's legal circles today? Is it the constitution? Some Supreme Court precedent? A breakthrough ruling at the District Court?

Not at all. The issue that has commanded the attention of every last judge and lawyer in Israel is the survey the Bar Association initiated three years ago to rank judges by what lawyers think of their performance. Israel's judges hate the survey and have been scrabbling high and low as to why it is bad for Israel's legal system. It is scientifically too flawed to be reliable; it could create a popularity contest among the judges to the detriment of objectivity; release of the results could impair judicial independence, they wail.

Their battle recently sank to a new low, truly inappropriate for the judicial institution: they issued a tender and hired publicist Motti Morel to advise them on the media aspects of their fight. The Bar Association views the survey as an important means of critiquing the judicial institution and encouraging excellence among judges. But the judges also have serious, weighty reasons for ruling that it would undermine the quality of judging.

The thing is that a small item that Haaretz published last week could give the impression that in some cases, the judges are less worried about the fate of the judicial system, but more concerned about narrow personal interests.

The judges' representatives announced last week it is launching a fight to protect the pension rights of judges who entered office after May 1999. In the memo delivered to the Judicial Authority, via the law offices of Ram Caspi and Asher Haled, Judge Dan Arbel wrote that while veteran judges were entitled to "budgetary pensions," to which they contribute not a single agora (the state pays all), the new judges were given contributory pension terms (they pay 5.5 percent).

"Contributory pensions for new judges undermines the principle of the judges' independence, and creates potential conflict of interest", Arbel wrote.

The judges are arguing to keep their budgetary pensions, which are the cancer of Israel's economy.

A worker who has a budgetary pension does not set aside a single penny for his old age, nor does his employer. Not one cent is booked as a current expense. The only place it appears is in the government's actuarial report, which it does not publish, nor does anybody talk about it.

But according to the treasury, the government's actuarial commitment for budgetary pensions, for all its employees and retirees, has reached a quarter trillion shekels. More precisely, NIS 248.5 billion, an elephantine mortgage sitting on the back of Israeli taxpayers for the next two generations.

Budgetary pensions are the cancer of Israel's economy, because they hide the real cost of the public sector's wages and disguise the real cost of the wage agreements from the public that foots the bill.

Budgetary pensions are the reason most of Israel's citizens do not realize the real cost of the defense establishment is dozens of percent higher than the budget shows. Budgetary pensions are the reason defense can continue lavishing pensions of hundreds of millions of shekels on thousands of pensioners and pensions in the millions of dollars to its top soldiers.

If the judges are raised above the people of Israel and continue to receive budgetary pensions, they will truly be detached from the economic realities. They will be immune from the sting of the pension reform, and will not feel the pain of the economic reforms.

The alternative to budgetary pensions is contributory ones, balanced in the actuarial report, life insurance, or provident funds, where the pensioner gets back money that he has set aside throughout his working life.

Profits or losses accrued by balanced pension savings depend, over time, on the economic situation and the government's economic policies. The more people there are whose pensions depend on the government's performance, the more the pressure will mount on the government to manage its economic policies responsibly.

By virtue of their status in society, the judges should abandon their budgetary pensions and join the rest of those involved with the new pension arrangements. Their current position is not only infuriating and inequitable; it also inflicts harm on the entire economy.