If Israel’s Defense Ministry has its way, the country’s soldiers will soon be swapping their Israeli boots for new ones made in America and dozens of local workers will be out of a job.
The move, a growing source of controversy in the Knesset, aims at one of the iconic symbols of Israel’s military — the infantry boot, manufactured domestically since the country’s independence — and is an example of how billions of dollars in American aid can be a double-edged sword.
The Defense Ministry says it will use US aid money to purchase the roughly 85,000 boots it uses each year from American factories beginning in 2013, a move that will force the closure of the last existing army boot factory in Israel. The decision, which defense officials present as a cost-cutting measure, has become the subject of controversy in the Knesset and a source of friction between the Defense and Finance ministries.
The military claims that it is NIS 3 billion short of its needs for 2012. If the gap is not closed by April, said Maj. Gen. Yair Naveh, the deputy chief of staff, “we will stop all training exercises and ground all planes.”
The Defense Ministry’s announcement has triggered accusations from all sides — about the quality and cost of the boot, the importance of supporting Israeli industry, the repercussions of unemployment, and the nature of American aid.
The IDF plans to buy its new boots with a sliver of the $3 billion of US aid that Israel receives every year. The funds earmarked for defense come with a stipulation: more than three quarters of the money must be spent in the United States, in American dollars. In some cases, like this one, that makes it arguably cheaper to buy American products than to manufacture them at home.
Labor Party leader Shelly Yachimovich, a member of the Knesset Finance Committee, vented her frustration at the decision during a January 30 meeting. “Is there any logic to [the fact] that my son who serves in the army will walk around with American boots at the expense of workers’ jobs in the factory? Is there any sort of national logic to that?”
Yachimovich, who has passed legislation banning the government from acquiring Israeli flags made abroad and another bill forcing the Defense Ministry to buy Israeli-made textiles, called the decision “unwise, immoral, un-Zionistic and socially wrong.”
Col. Ziv Gafni, a Defense Ministry representative at the Knesset meeting, took a two-pronged approach, arguing that the American boots were both better and cheaper.
However, those at the Brill factory in central Israel say their boot is better than the American competitor.
A Brill army boot goes through 24 stages before it is packaged and sent off to the IDF. Chaim Levi, who has worked at the factory for 20 years, has been in the industry for 36, and studied boot construction at a technical college in Azerbaijan for four and a half years before moving to Israel, presides over the first stage — the cutting of the leather. “The officers that came through here,” he said, “had a lot of brass on their shoulders but no knowledge” of boots.
The most significant flaw in the leather-and-Cordura American boot, according to Levi, lies in the construction of the soles. They are made of a polyurethane-and-rubber mix. “That’s what we used to have,” he said. “They have no shelf life.”
The production manager for IDF boots at Brill, Shimon Horovitz, concurred that polyurethane is fragile. After a year in a box, he said, the boot will crumble underfoot.
Double-density rubber with direct injection, he said, “is the future.”
In fact, that was one of the IDF’s demands when they signed the contract with Brill in 2000: a rubber boot sole, highly resistant to heat, with a long shelf life so that in a time of war boots could be taken out of the box and issued to the reservists who need them.
Brill sold off its old polyurethane-based technology and worked on the construction of the all-rubber soled boot for four years. After investing NIS 25 million in equipment and development, the plant began producing boots for the IDF in 2004.
Since then Brill has made upwards of 800,000 boots for the IDF. In 2005, the Defense Ministry awarded the IDF Logistics Corps a prize for the boot produced by Brill.
As late as mid-January, a memo from a meeting between Defense and Finance ministry officials confirmed Brill’s good standing. “There has been satisfaction with the boots they have provided, with their adherence to timetables, and with the prices agreed upon with the company,” read the letter, which was presented to the Knesset committee.
Col. Gafni’s second assertion rests on equally shaky ground. He submitted that the American-made boot costs $70, or NIS 272, and that the boot Brill provides costs NIS 401 per pair. The American price he quoted, however, does not include shipping costs to the East Coast, storage costs, shipping to Israel or Israeli tax.
The termination of the contract with the IDF would mean the closure of the factory. More than 100 workers would lose their jobs, and the costs to the government would be extensive. Yachimovich pointed to the expense of creating new jobs, building new factories, buying the necessary machinery and re-training the workers in a new field.
The chairman of the Knesset committee, Moshe Gafni, instructed the Defense Ministry to get back to him with a compromise. “I am not the kind of person who issues threats,” he said, and proceeded to issue a threat: If a compromise is not reached, he said, he will “feel very bad” the next time he is asked to approve the defense budget.
“The defense budget,” he reminded those present, “comes here once a week.”
Dudi Biton, the manager of the rubber injection process at Brill’s factory, looked around at the mix of Russian, Ethiopian, Bedouin and native Jewish Israeli workers and said that 80 percent of them would be on welfare for life if they were fired. But that was only part of his argument for keeping the plant open.
“What will they do during a war?” he asked, referring to the IDF. “During the Second Lebanon War we kept the factory open 24 hours a day. What will they do then, call America?”