Defense Minister Ya'alon: Ultra-Orthodox Draft Must Be Enforced Gently, Without Threats

Israeli Defense Minister sounds a conciliatory, reassuring note on state's defense capabilities and cooperation of the ultra-Orthodox community in light of reforms and budget cuts.

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Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon said Tuesday that the ongoing reforms to equalize the burden of military service in Israel was a "sensitive" issue that must be carried out carefully and without threat or force.

“The ways of politics are complicated” in the context of the coalition crisis and the extension of service for hesder yeshiva students, Ya'alon said while on a tour of the Home Front Command on Tuesday,

“Unfortunately, some people don’t understand the sensitivity of changing the situation after 65 years. It can’t be changed by force or by law, and certainly not by threatening populations, be they Arab or Haredi," he added.

“We chose a path of partnership with these populations, leading them to increase their service, and we’ve been successful," Ya'alon said. "The main trend is under way (more Haredim are enlisting in the IDF) and that’s important, but the moment we lash out at a population and threaten to throw people who study Torah into prison, we’ll get exactly the opposite result.”

Regarding the one-month extension of hesder yeshiva students’ military service, Ya’alon said, “Even though I thought it was right to extend the term of service, I’m committed to the coalition agreement and we won’t extend it at this stage. I hope the heads of the hesder yeshivas will find a way to participate in this matter too as time goes on, and to extend the term of service for hesder yeshiva students.”

Ya'alon also addressed the issue of cuts to Israel's defense spending as part of a new national austerity budget.

“A significant portion of the cutbacks in the defense budget will start becoming clear to the public at the level of training and fewer call-ups for reserve duty,” Ya'alon said.

On Tuesday, Haaretz reported that around 100 reserve battalions wouldnot be called up for operational deployment between now and the end of 2013. This will save approximately NIS 1 billion, but defense officials say additional cuts will be necessary.

One option under consideration is to reduce purchases of additional Iron Dome anti-missile systems in favor of investing in the development of the David's Sling defense system, also known as Magic Wand.

Ya’alon said Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz is to discuss the initial implications of the cutbacks with the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.

“We may have to reduce important parts of the budget in the short term, but it will be done judiciously so as not to compromise the IDF’s power,” Ya'alon stressed.

Another option being considered is reaching agreements with defense contractors to postpone payment for a few years, when the military budget is set to rise again.

Regarding Russian shipments of S-300 surface-to-air missiles to Syria, Ya'alon called Moscow's plans "a threat from our perspective," but added, "I can’t say there’s been an acceleration (in deliveries). The shipments haven’t gone out yet and I hope they won’t, and if they do arrive in Syria, God forbid, we’ll know what to do.”

Ceremony marking the end of basic training of a Nahal Haredi battalion. Credit: Alex Levac
Moshe Ya'alon touring Gaza-area communities with Benny Gantz, May 2013.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

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