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Follow the money

If salaries are any indication -- and they are -- then the generals are leading the country, not our elected officials

When you want to know where the center of power really is or who in fact is in charge, following the money is usually a good way to start. Every year come January, the Israeli Min. of Finance publishes the list of officials with the highest salaries in the public service. The publication regularly results in a media outcry accompanied by much huffing and puffing over the outrageous salaries paid to a chosen few officials, be it doctors working in the public health system or port pilots who skipper their tugs for one of Israel’s state owned ports. Naturally, the list never fails to include Israel’s finest, the IDF Chief of Staff and the Police Commissioner and not infrequently it includes the Prime Minister, government ministers and members of the Knesset as well even if the salaries of our elected officials aren’t really in the top leagues.

Compared to the Chief of Staff who goes home with roughly 75,000 NIS before tax, PM Netanyahu has to make ends meet with a measly 47,000 NIS. No wonder that Sarah every once in a while sees the need to pad her husband’s expense account. But this article isn’t just about the money.

What I would like to draw everybody’s attention to is a curious fact that has bothered me for quite a while: While all democracies I checked give a clear and substantial salary preference to the civilians in charge of the military and the police in their countries, Israel does the exact opposite. European democracies and the US will pay their Chief of Staff between 30% and 80% of the salary paid to the Prime Minister or President so the hierarchy is quite clear: The elected cilvilan leadership outranks the military not only in their positions but also in their salary. Here in Israel the top security people pull in more than 50% more than their civilian superiors. This is the clearest indicator that the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) have a country and not the other way around.

Here, just like in most places, the golden rule applies: He who has the gold makes the rules. One shouldn’t be surprised then that any attempt to reduce the defence budget will regularly result at best in failure, at worst in an increase over the original budget proposal.

Now please do not misunderstand me: I don’t begrudge our best and finest their well earned salaries, they do put their life on the line every once in a while (full disclosure: I get my pension from the defence budget). I just think that in principle, a situation where civilian superiors earn substantially less money than their military subordinates is unacceptable. This is not only an issue of symbolic significance, it is an indication of a skewed value system. The message is clear: The position of the Chief of Staff is worth more than the position of the Prime Minister. Members of the subordinated security apparatus (which includes the IDF, the Mossad and the Shabak) are held in higher regard and compensated better throughout the ranks than their fellow civilian equals and superiors who ostensibly are in charge. Nobody should be surprised then that the public relates to the members of the security apparatus with more reverence than to the civilian officials of equivalent or higher rank and gives their opinions more credit.

The implications of this distortion are serious and are one of the main reasons for the overwhelming power the security apparatus wields in Israel’s policy making process, to the detriment of the elected civilian leadership. Paying elected officials higher salaries than that of their subordinates in the security apparatus will go a long way in resolving this problem. Doing so will not only save the country a lot of money by making it possible to trim the defence budget but also rectify the present imbalance between the civilian and the security establishment. All other democracies do it that way, and they know why.

A Hebrew version of this article was published in TheMarker on 27/1/2014.

About the Author
The author served in the Prime Minister’s Office as a member of the intelligence community, is a member of the Council for Peace and Security and was a candidate in Labor’s 2012 primary election for the Knesset list
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