After outcry, government reaches compromise on funding for wounded veteran care

As Defense Ministry seeks to overhaul its much-criticized Rehabilitation Department, cabinet expected to approve NIS 300 million measure Friday or Sunday

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

Defense Ministry officials unveil new reforms for its Rehabilitation Department at defense headquarters in Tel Aviv on April 22, 2021. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)
Defense Ministry officials unveil new reforms for its Rehabilitation Department at defense headquarters in Tel Aviv on April 22, 2021. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

The government announced on Thursday that it reached a compromise on a Defense Ministry plan to reform treatment for wounded veterans, after a quarrel over funding halted the proposal earlier this week.

According to the Defense Ministry, the matter will be brought before the cabinet on Friday morning or, if that is not possible, on Sunday, where it is expected to receive the necessary approvals.

The Defense Ministry’s treatment for wounded veterans has come under intense scrutiny in recent weeks after Itzik Saidyan, a former soldier suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, set himself on fire outside the ministry’s Rehabilitation Department offices in the town of Petah Tikva last month. He remains in serious condition with burns covering his entire body.

Veterans and their advocates have long-maligned the department as providing woefully insufficient care and subjecting applicants to a bureaucracy so convoluted and torturous that many were required to hire expensive lawyers to help them navigate the system. After Saidyan’s self-immolation and the accompanying outcry, the Defense Ministry sought to implement reforms that it had for years been considering but had not had the political will to carry out.

Screen capture from video of IDF disabled veteran Itzik Saidyan talking about his struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder. (Channel 12 News)

That plan, dubbed One Soul, was released last month and is meant to be a major overhaul of the system, greatly increasing the number of staff in the department, making the process of being recognized as a wounded veteran easier and faster, and specifically improving the treatment for former soldiers with PTSD.

Some aspects of the plan required only approvals from within the Defense Ministry, while others required cabinet consent or new legislation to alter certain protocols and designations.

However, after initial progress was made toward its implementation, the advancement of the One Soul plan was held up earlier this week because of a fight over its funding between Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Finance Minister Israel Katz.

That prompted large protests by veterans groups, particularly the Organization of Wounded Veterans, which played a key role in formulating the plan.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz during a press conference in Tel Aviv, April 22, 2021. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

After three days of continued negotiation, Gantz and Netanyahu announced that a compromise had been reached and that the plan would continue, but with slight changes.

“I have approved thousands of operations, attack plans and reforms in the IDF and defense establishment and yet this is one of the most important and most moral efforts I have led, and I will continue to lead the implementation of this reform and provide proper care for IDF veterans,” Gantz said in a statement.

“After many efforts, we reached an agreement between the Prime Minister’s Office and Defense and Finance ministries, together with the Organization of Wounded Veterans, on a budget [for] reforming the Rehabilitation Department. Wounded IDF veterans are important and dear to us and an immediate and fundamental reform is needed to ensure the help that they deserve,” Netanyahu said.

As part of the compromise between the Defense and Finance ministries, the funding for the plan was scaled back from NIS 350 million to NIS 300 million.

Defense Minister Director-General Amir Eshel said this will not affect the level of service that wounded veterans will receive.

According to the Defense Ministry, the funding will go toward an immediate hire of 60 people for the Rehabilitation Department and toward additional support for veterans with PTSD.

Eshel said this would also include psychological support for the families of veterans with PTSD.

Once the government approves the proposal, the ministry will be able to push through the legislative changes needed to reform the department, including providing free legal assistance to veterans, the formation of a Rehabilitation Department ombudsman, changes to the recognition process and the hiring of yet more staff.

The head of the Organization of Wounded Veterans hailed the breakthrough and thanked the ministries involved.

“Today we in the leadership of the Organization of Wounded Veterans, together with the Israeli government, are starting to correct a years-long injustice from which many wounded veterans, men and women, and their families have been suffering, after sacrificing their bodies and their souls to the defense of the state,” Idan Kleiman said in a statement.

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