Beginning this year, and for the next three years, the number of inductees to the Israel Defense Forces is expected to drop substantially. During a period of highly complex security-related developments (even if they will not necessarily lead to a war), and amid a sharp dispute over the size of the defense budget, the IDF will have to cope with a new type of problem: of fewer young Israelis for the conscript army.
For a few years now, and even without taking into consideration the (legal) draft evasion of the ultra-Orthodox population, the IDF's personnel experts have been predicting a shortfall of a few thousand soldiers in key posts - both in the front ranks of the combat forces and in other crucial units.
The same atmosphere that hampers the army's efforts to persuade politicians to accept its concerns regarding cuts in the defense budget is clouding the IDF's attempt to clarify the severity of the induction situation.
"You tell people, 'The security situation is complicated, I need everyone I can get,' and they [the politicians] reply: 'Stop scaring the public, there are no Syrians trying to climb the fences now,'" a senior army figure says. "What the chief of staff would most like to hear now is that we have enough soldiers to create new units for him. But at this stage there is simply no place from which to get them."
During the past few years, following the trauma of the Second Lebanon War (2006), and especially since Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip (2009), there was a substantial increase in the number of draftees who were fit for combat duty and who wanted to serve in that capacity. At its peak, last August, the figure stood at 80 percent.
One possible reason for this phenomenon, according to the IDF Personnel Directorate, was that the country's youth shared a sharp sense of danger: With the northern third of the country subjected to 34 days of Katyusha rockets in 2006, and the southern third undergoing a similar experience two-and-a-half years later - young people felt a battle was raging over their home and displayed greater motivation for combat service.
However, according to available data, there is a certain decline in the willingness of draftees of the March call-up to do combat duty. This may be due to the relative security calm of late. Or, more profoundly (and this is something that may turn out to be a long-term phenomenon), this may also be due to the ongoing feeling of unfairness harbored by the population groups that continue to send their sons and daughters to do combat service.
These people feel they are being discriminated against in particular in relation to two groups: the ultra-Orthodox, who are exempt from military service altogether, and the veteran, well-off population, whose children are no longer filling the frontline ranks at the same levels they did in the past. That's why every meeting with parents at infantry basic-training bases starts with praise and thanks from the commanding officers, for the good upbringing the children received from Mom and Dad. Despite the data showing high motivation in recent years, combat service is now far from being a self-evident goal for 18-year-olds.
The emerging decline in the number of combat troops is making yeshiva students' legal evasion of army service an even more acute problem. On Wednesday, Chief of Staff Benny Gantz declared, "The reality in which the majority serve is liable to change. The State of Israel should find this development disturbing."
Senior IDF officers have long expressed even sharper sentiments in private conversations: Over the years, they say, it is becoming increasingly difficult to explain to 18-year-olds why they should do combat service while their peers from Bnei Brak and Betar Ilit are exempt.
In 2007, the IDF, with massive media encouragement, launched a "motivation campaign" against draft evasion. The results were impressive, but the campaign was fundamentally flawed. The IDF chose not to direct it at those for whom "Torah is their occupation," as that was considered a sensitive political issue.
Heightening the motivation of secular youngsters (that of national-religious youth is high to begin with) can have only a limited effect in numerical terms when 13 percent of those eligible for the draft do not share the burden by law. Another 2 percent of the draft-eligible population consists of Haredim who are exempted for psychological reasons. According to the current data, within a decade, Haredi men will constitute one-quarter of the potential draft pool. Those are dramatic numbers.
The IDF is under no illusion that the annulment of the Tal Law by the High Court of Justice this week will spur masses of young ultra-Orthodox men to enlist in the Golani and Givati infantry brigades. But in 2012, the army can no longer ignore the shortfall in combat units, or the impact of the present situation on those young people who are being called up.
In the past two years, the IDF has made a praiseworthy effort to integrate ultra-Orthodox men into a variety of tracks. In addition to the Haredi unit in the Nahal paramilitary brigade - a unit that has existed for a relatively long time - a few thousand Haredim have served in professional units in which they received technological training at the army's expense. They then enter the labor market and integrate into the broader Israeli society. Still, this is no more than a small positive drop in a sea of evasion.
Moreover, the positive data is in part misleading. In the past few years, quite a few national-religious soldiers who prefer a more strictly observant framework (and also more comfortable service conditions) opted to serve in the Haredi unit of the Nahal Brigade and in vocational tracks.
With fewer draftees, the army has to scrutinize its personnel plans carefully. And we're not even talking about the astounding number of soldiers, many of them idle, that every visitor to the Kirya (defense headquarters, in central Tel Aviv) or to the Tel Hashomer base (not to mention the Azrieli mall, adjacent to the Kirya) encounters. Over the years, too many alternative, abbreviated-service tracks have been operating, and it is doubtful that the IDF can afford to keep them going any longer.
Among these are the Nahal track, involving a period of extra-military service in the community (which relatively few soldiers in the Nahal Brigade now participate in), and the hesder yeshiva track, combining religious studies and military service. The General Staff is having difficulty understanding why it is worth it to invest in training an infantryman from such a yeshiva who will only do active combat service for 16 months. (A pilot program to extend this to 18 months is currently under way.)
This week's High Court of Justice decision affords the state and the IDF the opportunity to reorganize army service across the board. Defense Minister Ehud Barak has lately been talking about a model that makes a lot of sense: Everyone will be obliged to enlist, but the IDF will have the option of choosing those it truly needs for full service. The others will do abridged national service (firefighting, police, emergency ambulance service) or community work (assistance to the elderly, etc.).
According to Barak, the solution to the problem of discrimination that will arise - in terms of the length and difficulty of each type of service - will be found in the new quid pro quo: Soldiers, and particularly those in combat units, will receive, beginning in their second year of service, a salary that is close to the minimum wage. The money will be held for them until their discharge, at which time they will be able to use it for professional training or studies.
The High Court decision this week cites the report of a team headed by MK Yohanan Plesner (Kadima) no fewer than 17 times. In this case, for a change, the Knesset did serious work. Last year, a group from its Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, led by Plesner, examined the entire question of the draft. Its conclusions differed sharply from those of the government. While Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wanted to stick with the provisions of the Tal Law, though increasing somewhat the numbers in the different military-service tracks, the Plesner team thought that a fundamental change was necessary.
The High Court rejected the government's explanations outright, Plesner told Haaretz on Wednesday.
"The justices ruled that the implementation of the law had failed, that it was impossible to continue with the current format, and that in the major [military] tracks the numerical increase was negligible. The Tal Law left the executive branch with too many levels of freedom, which were abused. It turned out that there was a tremendous disparity between the purpose of the law - to provide a response to the inequality of the system - and its actual implementation. The law actually acted as a tool for mass evasion."
He added: "The current arrangement was shown to be an empty shell. Now we have to find an alternative arrangement, one with clear content and one which is capable of being implemented."
"We have an interest at this time in generating a discourse on equality in service," says a senior member of the General Staff. "To that end, we recently took an active step. I refer to a demand to fulfill the original purpose of the Tal Law, not only the law itself. This involves not only Haredim but also the huge number of women who are exempted from service on religious grounds - an exemption to which not all of them are entitled. If a model of obligatory service for all is introduced, we will reserve the right of choice and will be able to take those we truly need."
For years, everyone knew that the present draft model was no longer viable. Most politicians were in denial; IDF officers were afraid to intervene because of the acute political sensitivities surrounding the issue. This week, the High Court of Justice pulled the chestnuts out of the fire for them. The question that remains is whether the experts can now come up with a logical solution in the five months before the Tal Law officially expires - and whether the politicians will be able to implement it, in the face of the likely resistance of the Haredi parties.
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