Now that the new Knesset has had its festive swearing-in ceremony, it is going to have to start finding ways to reduce the deficit. One option is to tax the public. A second is to reduce services. But there is another way: track down the big money that goes into inflated salaries and needless positions in the public sector.
The problem there results from the existence of large and still growing groups that developed over the course of decades courtesy of the workers’ committees. The basic right to strike, which developed in the mines of England as a means of ensuring workers received enough to get by, developed into a powerful interest group’s means of enriching itself at the public’s expense.
The examples are well known: port workers who received huge monthly salaries, by Israeli standards, of 30,000–60,000 NIS; workers at the Israel Electric Company who receive similar salaries and free electricity; employees of Israel Aerospace Industries who joined the Likud en masse and thus guarantee their chairman a place in the Knesset as a kingmaker in the ruling party, where he works to get them salaries and working conditions that are nonexistent in other industries.
These are only the most egregious examples. And yet, truth be told, the real big money is poured into the pensions of the defense establishment. Did you know that each year the State of Israel spends about six billion NIS of the national budget on the pensions of career servicemen? The state already has budgeted 260 billion NIS for career soldiers’ pensions in future years.
Why should a lieutenant colonel who retires at age 45 receive 20,000 NIS every month for the rest of his life? Very few such people were actually combat troops. A major or non-commissioned officer who served in an office at the Kirya or in a warehouse at Tel Nof and completed an academic degree in parallel can simply go home at age 45 and receive 9,000 NIS every month until age 120. Just this past year, the powerful IDF Veterans Association, which represents the interests of former career soldiers, made off with the creation of additional state-funded positions as a gift to future members.
Let’s go back to the new Knesset. Every month, the state will pay every Knesset member 38,000 NIS. Each of them will receive a 4,250 NIS budget for clothing per year. Why? A Knesset member must look his best. Of course. Each member also will be paid 27,500 NIS toward a cell phone every year. I, for one, pay 1,000 NIS.
Two of the new Knesset members, Itzik Shmuli and Stav Shaffir, were among the leaders of the 2011 social protests in which they chanted, “the people want social justice.” Indeed. The gap between them and regular people is intolerable.
Take the example of Miri. Miri is a much admired teacher who lives in the south Mount Hevron area and travels to Gush Etzion every day to teach in a top school there. She receives 5,000 NIS per month from the Ministry of Education, much of which goes to paying for fuel to get her to work. Her neighbor, also a teacher, splits costs with her, and they take the shortest route possible, through Arab villages, in order to reach and teach the Jewish children in their classes. Why should they receive any less than a non-commissioned officer working at the Kirya or in a command headquarters? What about the nurses who are overburdened with stress and exhaustion until age 65, laboring away in a collapsing health system lacking staff and money? Why is there no money to employ more nurses and reduce the load?
The public needs to demand that the members of the Knesset look in the mirror and start off by cutting their own salaries by at least 40 percent, with additional, symbolic cuts, such as doing away with taxpayer-funded boarding at Jerusalem hotels. Their Knesset offices are outfitted with showers and comfortable sofas—they can sleep at the Knesset once or twice a week. Knesset Members Yitzchak Berman and Michael Ben Ari used to do that.
Once that is done, they will be able to move on to the next stage: putting an end to the injustices inherent in the public pay scale. Massive reorganization is needed. The way to do that is to raise public awareness; stand up to the powerful workers’ committees with the help of patience and public backing; and even take some unpopular steps, such as issuing corrective legislation to end the Labor Courts’ automatic support for strikes.
Can the Knesset members do it? Is it possible? Once they’ve made cuts to themselves, it will be much easier to cut away at the fat that is choking the budget.
Originally published in Mekor Rishon. Translated from Hebrew by David Greenberg.