Where is all the money going?

The IDF does not need an extra cent. Its budget is higher now than it was in 2000

IDF tanks gaza 298.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
IDF tanks gaza 298.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
Nothing better illustrates the true nature of the defense establishment's demand for a NIS 30 billion budget increase over the next four years than the fact that it was unveiled mere days after Haaretz reported that the army had agreed to finance consultations with the best - and most expensive - private-sector lawyers for any officer hauled before a commission of inquiry into the recent war. There is, of course, no conceivable justification for such generosity, which could easily run to millions of shekels. The IDF has a sizable legal department; if senior officers prefer advice from the private sector, they should foot the bill themselves. But it is eminently typical of the way the IDF works: It would rather skimp on military essentials such as reservists' training and emergency stocks - and then plead poverty - than undertake the unpleasant task of eliminating the fat from its budget in order to free up necessary funds. While the IDF has no chance of getting the full NIS 30b., the Finance Ministry has already agreed to an extra NIS 6b. in 2006-7. Yet the truth is that the army does not need an extra cent: Its budget, far from shrinking in recent years, is higher now than it was in 2000, and defense is the largest item in the overall government budget after debt servicing. What the IDF does need is to use the funds it has more effectively, by diverting money from unnecessary frills to core functions such as training. Following, therefore, are a few suggestions for how the IDF could slash expenditures. • Pensions. This may be the biggest unjustified expenditure in the defense budget. For years, the IDF allowed all employees to retire with full pension at age 45 - fully 20 years earlier than the norm in the civilian world. This is logical for combat soldiers, who need to be in peak physical condition, but makes no sense at all for non-combat soldiers, who in fact constitute the vast majority: In a modern army, the ratio of non-combat to combat troops can be as high as 10:1. In 2004, the IDF finally bowed to pressure and instituted a reform: Non-combat soldiers would only be able to retire with full pension at 55, while civilian IDF employees would have to wait until 60. At about the same time, however, the retirement age in the rest of the economy was raised to 67 (for men; 62 for women). Thus even after this grand reform, IDF employees with jobs identical to those in the civilian sector can retire with full pension seven to 12 years before their civilian counterparts! Since the IDF's manpower and budget figures are classified, there is no way of knowing exactly how much this unconscionable perk costs. But judging from pension expenditures in the rest of the public sector, it is clear that the figure runs into the billions. • Army Radio. This is another money-guzzler. Again, since the figures are classified, there is no way of knowing its exact price tag. But a radio station does not come cheap, even when costs are cut by the use of conscript labor: It requires expensive hi-tech equipment, and Army Radio also employs several stars who earn hefty salaries. In a modern democracy, there is no conceivable justification for the army to be running one of only two national radio stations (an evil compounded by the fact that the other is run by the government). But this is especially true given that Army Radio is completely civilian in nature: Its mix of news, talk shows and music is identical to that found on non-army stations. Moreover, abolishing Army Radio would not just save money; it would make money: Airwave frequencies are valuable commodities in the modern world, and Army Radio controls two. These could be auctioned off, and the money used to fund genuine military needs. • "Sending messages." This has long been a favorite Israeli "anti-terrorist" tactic: shelling empty fields and bombing empty buildings in order to "send a message" to terrorists about what the IDF could do to them if it so chose. To cite just one example: Between April 20 and July 20 the IDF fired 11,280 artillery shells into "open, uninhabited areas," according to a letter sent by Defense Minister Amir Peretz to MK Zahava Gal-On (Haaretz, August 28). The letter also noted that each shell costs NIS 2,900. Thus during those three months, the IDF spent NIS 32.7 million just to shell empty fields! This, as Peretz correctly noted, is cheap compared to the cost of sending fighter jets to launch guided missiles. But Israel frequently does that, too - as in its nighttime bombing of Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh's office this July. Nighttime was chosen deliberately so that the office would be empty; Israel simply wanted to "send a message" that it could get Haniyeh if it so desired. After six years of fighting, however, such messages are pointless. Israel has already killed several Hamas leaders; if this has not convinced other terrorists that they, too, are vulnerable, bombing empty buildings will not help. Similarly, the Palestinians know that Israel has the technology to declare rocket-launching zones "no-go areas" where anyone who enters is shot on sight; the only relevant question is whether Israel is willing to do so - a question that shelling empty fields at best fails to answer, and may even answer in the negative. Lack of space prevents me from offering several other suggestions. Nevertheless, the list would not be complete without one final proposal: firing every senior economist and accountant in the IDF and the Defense Ministry. Given their apparent inability to come up with these and many similar ideas themselves, they are clearly not worth the salaries that we, the taxpayers, are paying them. CORRECTION: In last week's column, after correctly identifying Judge Ron Sokol in the first paragraph, I proceeded to misname him throughout the rest of the piece. My editor and I apologize for the error.