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Israel

Why Israelis Are Tired Of Bankrolling Military Might

IDF soldiers
IDF soldiers
Tal Shavit

-OpEd-

TEL AVIV — The reactions to last week's Locker Commission report that calls for massive cuts to the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) budget is perhaps the best proof to date that the Israeli people don't understand the mechanisms that keep them safe.

The report recommends keeping the defense budget at $15.4 billion for the next five years, reducing compulsory military service to two years and canceling early retirement for noncombatant officers. The problem is that citizens don't judge in any rational way what the consequences of those decisions would be. Instead, they view the recommendations subjectively, through the lens of their own reality. Apparently, that reality is very different from the IDF's.

Since 2011's major social protests, the views of Israelis have changed dramatically. People are thinking with their wallets and asking more questions, which are good things up to a point. Until now, the defense system has been immune to any social protest because the prevailing view has been that Israel wouldn't exist without a strong army.

The debate now is how to maintain a strong defense against multiple kinds of threats. A decade or two ago, the notion of security revolved around support for a strong military that would protect the country's borders. The concept today is more complex and includes a desire for economic strength and security.

Here's the paradox: Israelis are very much aware that they need a strong military and an expanded Iron Dome air defense system, but they are less willing to pay for it. Especially if these protections come at the expense of the education or health budgets or if they have a negative impact on standard of living. Those who are having difficulty buying an apartment can't help but notice that there are Israeli army bases sitting on some of the country's most expensive land.

Retirement issues

Israelis are perpetually conflicted. They admire the army's heroes and veterans. But they resent the fact that defense force members retire at 45 while the rest of the population face increasingly unfavorable pension and retirement circumstances. The retirement age seems to climb every year, and nobody's getting rich.

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Iron Dome at work during "Operation Pillar of Cloud" — Photo: Emanuel Yellin

The army has dispatched its best generals to attack the Locker report and to warn of deep and lasting damage to the country if its recommendations are executed. They have tried to offer rational explanations — namely, that security has a price — to an irrational populace. Israelis admire their generals, but none of its generals is as beloved as former Defense Minister Amir Peretz, who in 2006 pushed for the development of the Iron Dome anti-rocket interceptor system over the objections of the offensive minded IDF, saving hundreds of Israeli lives and changing the face of the war on terrorism in the process.

It's unlikely that the recommendations of the Locker report will be pushed through this time around. But Israeli lawmakers won't be able to reject its recommendations forever. The next report or the one after that will have to be accepted.

The public was once united on security issues, but today it unites even more on economic and social matters. The will of the population to change the face of Israeli society toward more a rightful distribution of goods and more progressive social justice will affect the defense and security apparatus. Perhaps a more civilian security strategy and a more civil army is the right answer?

Perhaps. But these are the questions that become impossible to consider effectively when the people scream.

*Tal Shavit is associate dean of the business school at Israel's College of Management/Academic Studies (COMAS).

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