The Nuances Behind the IDF’s New Equitable Draft Plan

The IDF will have first pick of the people it wants to draft, before they choose various branches of national civilian service.

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A new plan that the defense establishment presented Monday to the ministerial committee charged with finding a more equitable draft is actually a reincarnation of one that has been discussed in the Israel Defense Forces and Defense Ministry for almost a decade.

In some of its key components, the plan is quite similar to recommendations for shortening compulsory service made in 2006. It is also similar to statements by IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz and his predecessor, Gabi Ashkenazi, as well as a proposal by previous defense minister Ehud Barak, right before he left office.

In general, the army is proposing what is really necessary: The IDF will have first pick of the people it wants to draft, before they choose various branches of national civilian service. Service will now no longer be shortened for hesder yeshiva students ‏(who combine their military service with yeshiva studies‏) or the original route of Nahal Brigade service; length of service will gradually become determined by job and not by gender − as it is now, where men serve three years and women two.

Thousands of soldiers each year will no longer do their compulsory service in civilian postings like the police. The idea will also be examined to require religious women to do civilian service. The army will pledge that shortened compulsory service will not mean more days of annual reserve duty.

All of these elements are obviously necessary. At least some of them could have already been initiated before the High Court of Justice ‏(which annuled the previous law offering exemptions for yeshiva students, the so-called Tal Law‏) and the voters forced the state and the IDF to finally deal with the gaps created around the issue of compulsory service.

The security establishment’s plan is different in one point from the plan proposed by Yesh Atid − the key patron of the change, and one of whose members, Jacob Perry, is chairman of the ministerial committee. The army proposes that the arrangement apply to the draft beginning in August 2015, a little more than two years from now, while Yesh Atid wants it to start this summer.

Differentiation in length of service, mentioned in both plans, is obviously needed. Even today, quite a few IDF male soldiers who serve in home-front postings are demobilized after two years because their full service is not really needed. Therefore, there is no choice but to set the length of service according to function and give appropriate remuneration to male and female soldiers who will bear a heavier ‏(and longer‏) burden than other soldiers because of the essential nature of their service.

That is true for a good many combat soldiers as well as those in the technological fields, who will continue to serve for three years, the last four months of which will be under career army conditions.

However, neither the IDF nor the ministerial committee knows what the long-term implications of this differential length of service will be. Even now, the first worrisome signs of a new trend have appeared: Fewer soldiers are going in for combat roles in units considered dull, like the armored or engineering corps, while more soldiers are seeking postings considered “combat-lite” ‏(like operation of Iron Dome antimissile batteries or the search-and-rescue battalions of the Home Front Command‏), which are usually less risky.

Meanwhile, more and more requests are piling up for service in jobs considered plum home-front assignments, such as the Intelligence Corps’ Unit 8200 and cyber warfare in the communications branch.

Down the road, the IDF will have difficulty attracting soldiers with good cognitive skills to field units considered drab, and will have trouble training suitable officers from among these units. The deepening inequality between combat soldiers and soldiers with desk jobs, even if combat brings greater monetary remuneration, could, in the long-run, deter draftees from combat service − which is demanding enough now, even before the planned changes.

Another question stems from the connection between shorter service and the drafting of more Haredim. The chief of staff and others among the IDF’s top brass have said on a number of occasions they would oppose shortening service if it does not involve regulating the draft of yeshiva students. There are concerns among army brass that the public will perceive shorter service as a consolation prize after the government is unable to enforce the draft on the ultra-Orthodox. In that case, the army will pay the price ‏(less human resources because of the shorter service‏) without getting more soldiers to fill the ranks in combat units.

What does the army really want? The answer is not as clear as it seems. A statement released by Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon’s bureau on Monday describes “a show the IDF put on” in the ministerial committee. That, more or less, is the impression some members of the ministerial committee have. The committee is concerned that the IDF is speaking out of both sides of its mouth: It is swearing fealty to the idea of a people’s army, but in fact it is not going out of its way to draft the ultra-Orthodox − and if it has a chance not to implement the plan, it will not be averse to making it fade away.

The doubters point to the number of reports over the past two years of the IDF’s intention to start at least another combat battalion or two along the lines of the Haredi Nahal unit, with nothing actually happening in that regard. They mention that the few thousand Haredim who have served in the battalion since its establishment 15 years ago are not serving in the reserves at all because the army is delaying the establishment of reserve units of the same kind.

If new arrangements are not made soon, the only obligatory arrangement will be the Security Service Law, by which the IDF will be required on August 15 to draft 5,400 ultra-Orthodox men who have already received their call-up orders after the previous law was struck down. Despite all good intentions, the army is probably not ready at this moment to draft 54 more Haredim than it already has, never mind another 5,400.

That is the crux of the matter. The government has pledged to pass a new draft plan by the time the new budget is submitted, slated for June 10. This timetable leaves the ministerial committee about two weeks to come to its final conclusions. But from statements by the heads of Habayit Hayehudi, for example, it appears that real gaps remain among the positions of the coalition partners with regard to the draft plan, especially as far as how harsh the sanctions will be for Haredi draft-dodgers.

If no agreement is reached, the ball will roll into the IDF’s court this summer. If the state tries to enforce the draft on the ultra-Orthodox without a broad, agreed-on arrangement in place, the result could be a serious clash. If the army looks the other way and does not draft them, a petition will certainly be submitted to the High Court by a secular future draftee claiming discrimination − and the state will no longer be able to hide behind the Tal Law to justify it.

An IDF soldier on the Gaza border during Operation Pillar of Defense. Credit: Nir Kafri

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