The endless debate on the defense budget, as well as the storm surrounding the payments to yeshiva students, touches on a topic with which Israeli parents with a child in the IDF are more than familiar: the allowance that they have to hand out to their serving sons and daughters on a regular basis.
Most say that the miniscule, symbolic sum their children earn from the army is simply not enough to cover their monthly expenses, such as socks and thermal underwear for winter, a night out with their friends at the weekend, and certainly not food for those who do not eat every meal on the base.
"A soldier serves the state and it costs him money," says MK Elazar Stern of Hatnua, the former head of the IDF Human Resources department, who is behind a drive to change the current situation.
The issue, which affects many families in Israel, is raised regularly. This week, lawmakers discussed a request to transfer soldiers' salaries to the Finance Ministry, on the grounds that the wages are "choking" the defense budget.
Stern is one a series of lawmakers from across the spectrum who are behind a bill proposal to grant a bonus to soldiers in the final third of their national service, depending on the nature of their role: A soldier serving inside the country would receive 1,500 shekels; a soldier in a combat support role would receive 2,000 shekels, and combat troops would get 3,000 shekels.
The bill also has the support of fellow Hatnua MKs Amram Mitzna, David Tsur and Meir Sheetrit, as well as Orly Levy-Abekasis and Robert Ilatov of Yisrael Beiteinu, and Zvulun Kalfa of Habayit Hayehudi.
"The living expenses that soldiers get today is insulting. At the moment we are taking advantage of their service," Stern told Ynet. Noting that it would cost several hundred million shekels per year to remedy, he said it was a small price to pay. "So what?" he asked. "These are the nation's soldiers."
In January, soldiers' salaries rose by 20 percent, so that non-combat soldiers now earn 400 shekels per month, combat support soldiers make 600 shekels per month, and combat troops 850 shekels per month.
Rafi Luzon from Carmiel has had experience of sons in the army. At the moment, he has one son in the Nahal Brigade as a combat solder, while his older child had had a non-combat role.
"My soldier son makes do with a little, and those 850 shekels are enough for him," Luzon says. "He comes home for a brief weekend twice a month, and the money is enough for two or three nights out. Truth be told, we cover his other costs, although it's not a significant amount."
Even so, his older son served in a unit that allowed him to return home each day. His expenses were higher, and his salary lower.
"I see the problem for other solders," says Luzon. "They come from underprivileged families, and serve in non-combat units. They really do have a problem because they can't for instance eat all of their meals in the army, and need to finance themselves in the hours and days that they are at home."
Tammy Atia from Kibbutz Degania Bet is mother to Nitzan, who enlisted about six weeks ago and is currently completing a training course.
"The 350 shekels that she gets each month is not enough for anything, even as pocket money," Atia says. "When these soldiers come home every once in a while they are entitled to go out, to treat themselves to something. I give my daughter 100 shekels every time she comes home, otherwise she couldn't go out and have fun in the short time she's home. What about parents who can't afford to do that? I know soldiers who have to go out to work when they come home on Friday and Saturday to help out their families."
The IDF's response to parents makes clear how little the military can do. "The IDF, in conjunction with the Defense Ministry, is working to resolve the amount that soldiers doing compulsory military service receive as living allowance," said the IDF Spokesman's office. "The necessary adjustment will be made in relation to changes in the cost of living, and as part of a comprehensive review and overhaul of the compulsory service model."
The army spokesman noted the 20 percent pay rise implemented in January, and said that the IDF was looking at other ways to compensate its soldiers. The army, the spokesman said, already offers financial aid to struggling soldiers and their families, including benefits and loans.
The Defense Ministry declined to comment on the bill proposal or claims from soldiers' families, on the grounds that the IDF response included the ministry too.
MK Robert Ilatov says that the current situation has serious, even legal, implications for the serving soldiers.
"We've seen the figures and know what's happening – how many serving soldiers engage in criminal activity for financial reasons and how many try to move to non-combat roles so they can go out to work," he says. "It's a serious problem. The allowance that soldiers get has not been adjusted since 1986, and as a result the state is indirectly levying an extra tax on each soldier."
"I'll give you some examples," Ilatov offers. "Soap that cost 40 agorot in '86 now costs 3 shekels and 40 agorot. A can of coke cost 26 agorot and today it's five shekels. A sandwich cost 36 agorot then and today its 12 shekels. A pack of cigarettes cost one shekel now costs 26 shekels on average. Families are supporting the soldiers instead of the state, and the army calls it service."
Hadar from Herzliya is the mother of a soldier completing his national service, and says she doesn't know whether to laugh or cry over the money he gets.
"This allowance is not enough for anything," she says. "My son does meaningful service. He's on the base for long hours. I spend money on him like I do on my son in high school. Someone who gives three years of his life to the country should not be getting just an allowance.
"They simply need to pay him a salary."