Taking Stock / The Darkest Military Secret

"Career soldiers will bear the brunt of the sacrifices."

"Attack on career soldiers' pockets."

"Criteria for supporting disabled, widows to be toughened."

"The treasury constantly picks on the people who invest night and day in protecting the nation."

Yedioth Ahronoth, headlines on pages 2 and 3 on October 23, 2005.

Yup, the annual battle over the defense budget is off and running. As always, the army has the upper hand when it comes to spin: Its PR is more effective and clever, too. As always the Finance Ministry officials, led by the budget director Kobi Haber, stand helpless and cowed before the army's barrage, knowing they'll have to sound the retreat.

1. "Sacrifice": The actual battle over the practicalities hasn't even begun yet, but the defense forces, which are past masters at influencing public opinion, have already persuaded the public that the treasury is aiming harsh sacrifices at the hapless soldiers.

The reality is exactly the opposite. The biggest sacrifice, borne by the suffering public, is the defense budget itself. The correlation between its inflated dimensions and the level of security is highly elusive.

The billions the defense establishment squanders, the inflated salaries, the superfluous projects carried out at the cost of hundreds of millions each month, all swallow enormous chunks of the government's tax revenues. That is money that could be used to help the elderly, the disabled, the sick and the unemployed.

2. "Protecting the nation day and night." That's a debate-stopper sure enough. Any rebuttal to that would sound churlish - but what the army is hiding and the treasury doesn't realize, is that 70 to 80 percent of the army's outlay on pay is for career soldiers working safely behind the lines, at their desks.

If the defense establishment were to cut the billions wasted on these fat cats, it could earmark more money toward improving the standard of living and protection for the people who actually are risking their lives for the nation.

3. "The pockets of the career soldiers": Indeed, the army's terminology has become deeply etched into the Israeli ethos, and it works. The livelihood of the people selflessly serving us is at stake! Other civil servants such as teachers, nurses, cleaners, engineers are just people working for money, while soldiers "serve".

But what the army is hiding and the treasury is afraid to expose, is that the pay lavished on soldiers fulfilling entirely civilian positions in the army - engineers, doctors, psychologists, social workers, economists - is tens of percent higher than the same people could get in the real world.

What the treasury is afraid to reveal is that the pension cost of each career soldier ranges from a million shekels to NIS 10 million, figures that few in the private sector could achieve.

4. "Bring back 50 percent of the army envoys." Yes, cut right into the living flesh, the favorite cushy job in the defense establishment. Most of Israel's representations overseas are bloated and in fact, entirely unnecessary. Several could be merged, saving significantly in payroll expenses. Each envoy, with family, costs the taxpayer hundreds of thousands of shekels each year but the defense establishment manages to "sell" the papers the concept that pricking this pork-ridden bubble is a `sacrifice'.

5. "Tax army cars", "Sick pays can only be redeemed from age 50", "Abolish the discount tax rate", "No more free higher education for soldiers". And so on and so forth. In the terms of the average taxpayer, the army would have to reconnect to the Israeli reality, but the generals who've been running the economy for the last 50 years find the concept unthinkable: What, no more free car use, university courses?

6. "It's time for those kiddie paper-pushers at the treasury to come to their senses and stop meddling in nonsense. They are a disgrace and an embarrassment." That is a slightly free translation of what a top army official told Yedioth Ahronoth.

Does the Defense Ministry fail to understand that NIS 40 billion of taxpayer money streaming to defense each year is not "nonsense"?

Strange, but maybe it's true. Two years ago, when we presented the former chief of staff Moshe Ya'alon with the data about the pension cost of army officers, which comes to millions of shekels each, he sat silent, thought for a few seconds, then blurted out, "I don't know what to say to you about those figures." Until that moment, when the debate turned to defense, Ya'alon had plenty to say. But when asked some simple economic questions, he ran out of ammo. Get it straight: The top echelon of the defense establishment is entirely detached from Israel's economic reality. It has no experience thinking in economic terms. Former finance minister Benjamin Netanyahu once said that the army headquarters is the most powerful union in Israel. That is indeed the army's mentality, which has been fully backed by the prime ministers and Knesset members over the generations.

7. The Finance Ministry has failed time and again to truly cut the defense budget. The treasury officials stumble into one mine field after another: Instead of focusing the debate on the supertanker-sized barrels of pork seeding the entire defense establishment, instead of spotlighting the corruption in the system, they get dragged into debates over controversial issues.

The treasury must change its pattern of work against the defense establishment. Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz's attempt to present bleeding-heart credentials (to promote his bid for the premiership), while at the same time unnecessarily pouring billions more into defense, creates a stellar opportunity to hold genuine debate on the defense budget, to found a panel of inquiry that would pore over the defense budget with a fine-toothed comb, that would delve into each and every project, that would examine each and every foreign delegation, every perk and party, that would, for the first time in Israeli history, shed light on the army's darkest secret: the slightness of the connection between defense spending and the safety of the people of Israel.