As a Knesset committee worked feverishly on Tuesday to finalize a new conscription law, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Benny Gantz attended a graduation ceremony at the Bahad 1 officers’ training base. In their addresses to the newly minted officers, neither touched on the specifics of the new law. Netanyahu said only that he wanted to see “all segments of our society more equally represented” in the army. Gantz urged all young people “to rise up and serve their homeland,” adding that while the public calls the debate over army service “a debate over equality in [bearing] the burden, we call it ‘the right to serve’ – and we should fight for this right.”
The debate taking place in the Shaked Committee that same day was of necessity far more detailed. It revolved around a dispute that arose, somewhat surprisingly, at the last minute, as the committee was in the midst of voting on the bill. The dispute pits a majority of the committee against the defense establishment over the issue of whether to shorten compulsory service for men.
On Monday, as planned, the committee approved a proposal to shorten this service from 36 to 32 months. But it promptly opened a new front against the IDF by simultaneously rejecting a proposal to lengthen compulsory service for women from 24 to 28 months. The army viewed this extension as essential to compensate, at least in part, for the manpower loss caused by curtailing service for men.
With the encouragement of Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, the IDF is therefore digging in its heels on the issue of extending service for women.
According to both Ya’alon and Gantz, this is one of several necessary measures to compensate for the expected manpower shortfall. The others include drafting more ultra-Orthodox men and religiously observant women, two communities that largely don’t serve today; ending the practice of loaning soldiers to the police and the Shin Bet security service; and extending the army component of the five-year hesder program, which combines Torah study with army service, from 16 to 24 months. Currently, however, it looks as if almost none of these demands will be met.
What the army hasn’t mentioned during this debate is that it already agreed with the Finance Ministry on a compensation package to help it cope with the expected manpower shortage. Under this agreement, the IDF will get an extra 550 million shekels a year ($156 million), a sum based on the conclusions of the 2006 Brodet Committee, which recommended cutting compulsory service for men. This money is meant to enable the army to hire combat soldiers and technical specialists as career soldiers on short-term contracts, to fill the gaps created by shorter compulsory service. From the treasury’s standpoint, this is a worthwhile deal, because the economy as a whole will benefit from having most male soldiers enter the workforce four months sooner.
Nevertheless, despite the stormy exchanges between Ya’alon and Shaked Committee members on Tuesday, it seems the spat over extending women’s service will ultimately be resolved, because both sides are interested in resolving it.
The Yesh Atid party, which was the mover and shaker behind the new law, is much more interested in the section of the bill to be discussed next week – drafting all 18-year-olds as of July 2017, or in other words, imposing criminal sanctions on Haredi draft-dodgers if the quotas for Haredi service set in the bill haven’t been met by then.
This, essentially, is the key question surrounding the new law: How many Haredim will be serving in the IDF in another three and a half years? Yesh Atid hopes the number will be significantly larger than it is today. The Haredim apparently believe that by then, a new coalition will be in power and it will possible to soften the evil decree, either by amending the law or by turning a blind eye to its nonenforcement.
Nevertheless, the IDF’s manpower problems weren’t created by the Shaked Committee’s decision not to lengthen service for women. These problems include a decline in the percentage of 18-year-olds being drafted at all, and in their motivation to serve in combat units; a shortage of people appropriate for certain essential positions among soldiers doing their compulsory service; and insufficient training of the reserves. And all of them are the result of steady erosion that has been going on for at least a decade.
Gantz, who will begin his fourth and final year as chief of staff on Friday, has so far enjoyed a much quieter tenure than his predecessors, with no major military operations. If this continues to be true in the coming year as well, his term will instead be overshadowed by the worsening crisis in the army’s manpower situation.
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