The Bottom Line / Paying a Price for Military Service

Last week a soldier by the name of Alex Frantz was caught as he was about to sell a collection of arms he had stolen from the anti-aircraft unit where he served in the Golan Heights.

Last week a soldier by the name of Alex Frantz was caught as he was about to sell a collection of arms he had stolen from the anti-aircraft unit where he served in the Golan Heights. He stole a heavy machine-gun, field glasses, compasses, maps and ammunition. Frantz told his interrogators: "I needed money because my family is in desperate financial condition ... My parents have been forced to live with my grandparents and sometimes they have nothing whatsoever to eat."

Clearly no one can justify thievery of this kind that endangers us all, but at the same time, we cannot close our eyes to the difficult financial plight of some of the soldiers and their families. Indeed, there has been a sharp increase in the number of soldiers who have requested special leave from their regular service so that they can go out and work because of economic difficulties at home.

The ministerial committee for army reserve duty, headed by Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, only two days ago approved a reform in reserve service. Many of the regular soldiers will be automatically released from doing reserve duty. The remainder will serve in the reserves only until the age of 36 and will be called up exclusively for training stints - unless there is a state of emergency - or for preparing for emergencies. In addition, the committee recommended that those who serve in the reserves, "the minority who carry the burden," receive proper payment. That is correct. Those who do reserve duty should be amply recompensed because the gap between them and those who evade reserve service is intolerable. But the recommendation should be extended to cover soldiers doing regular service, as well.

There are many draftees who also do not serve. In 2002, 9 percent of the young men of call-up age received an exemption on the grounds that they wanted to study Torah, another 21 percent of the Jewish youth who were called up received exemptions for other reasons, and the Arabs who do not do military service comprised another 15 percent of those of draft age. This means that, altogether, 45 percent of the males of draft age do not serve in the Israel Defense Forces. Among the females, the percentage is even higher.

Those recruited for military service pay a heavy price on two scores. The first is that they face the risk of being wounded or killed, and the second is that they lose years of study and income. The compensation those soldiers receive from the IDF is the ridiculous, paltry sum of NIS 400-NIS 600 per month. Therefore, in order to lessen the discrimination, the soldiers should receive a minimum wage of NIS 3,500 per month, so that the soldier who returns home on furlough is not faced with disgrace, so he can help support his family, and so that discharged soldiers can start civilian life in a respectable fashion, with a reasonable sum of money put aside.

From the economic point of view, paying a minimum wage will turn the IDF, which has been "the army of the people," into "an economic army." The attitude toward soldiers doing compulsory service will change. Suddenly not only fuel, or tanks, or a private vehicle for officers will be items in cost accounting, but also the major production factor - the soldiers. This change in itself will lead to a process of cost efficiency and to less of a demand for new recruits.

Slashing compulsory and reserve service and shortening them will lead to tremendous real benefits to the economy since one must always remember that the true burden on the economy is not the pocket money paid to the soldiers but the loss in GDP caused by the loss of years of work, a loss that is never calculated in the budget.