IDF Chief Saves Face by Green-lighting Women Tank Soldiers' Scheme

His decision, made after the High Court put a gun on the table, shows Aviv Kochavi's the boss regarding women in combat – not rabbis

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A woman tank driver participating in the Israel Defense Forces' Armored Corps pilot program, June 28, 2018
A woman tank driver participating in the IDF's pilot program in the Armored Corps, June 28, 2018. Credit: IDF Spokesman's Office
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Sometimes, after all other options have been exhausted, the Israel Defense Forces does the right thing. That’s what happened Sunday morning, when Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi announced the extension of a pilot program aimed at integrating women in Armored Corps units that defend Israel's borders.

A final decision will only be made sometime in mid-2022, toward the end of Kochavi’s term, but the trend is already clear. Despite threats by rabbis and open opposition from some legendary commanders in the corps – the woman in the tank will win.

This apparently would not have come about had the High Court of Justice not put a gun on the table. Creation of the initial pilot program for women in the Armored Corps was ordered by Kochavi’s predecessor, Gadi Eisenkot. The IDF deemed the experiment – which involved 15 women, including four who completed a tank commanders’ course – a success. But Eisenkot left the final decision to Kochavi, at the latter’s request. He dragged his feet for a year, finally making his decision only under legal duress.

Two young women who are about to be inducted had asked the court to order the IDF to let them serve as combat soldiers in the Armored Corps. Last week, another petition was filed, this time by two of the women who completed the first tank commanders’ course. The IDF was slated to submit its response to the first petition by Wednesday, and the court was to hold a hearing on the case next month.

Current IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi, left, with his predecessor, Gadi Eisenkot, in 2015.Credit: Gefen Reznik/IDF Spokesman's Office

Behind the scenes, a world war was raging in the army. Some veteran tank commanders, including major generals in active service, opposed the idea – not due to religious objections to men and women serving together, but for professional reasons.

They argued that women’s ability to handle the physical burdens involved in serving in tanks had not been proven. Moreover, they said, the headaches the issue was causing the IDF outweighed the benefit: creating a company of female tank soldiers who would free up their male counterparts from having to do less demanding operational service on the Egyptian border, and allow them to spend more time training.

The other side in this dispute cited the army’s declared policy of opening all positions to women as long as they meet the physical and professional requirements. Some top brass also feared that the army wouldn’t be able to justify, in court, a ban on women in tank units given that all four women sent to the first-ever commanders’ course passed it; one was even named the outstanding cadet of her mixed-gender class.

Kochavi’s decision thus spares the IDF huge embarrassment at the High Court, which was informed of it on Sunday.

It can be assumed that the current chief of staff, who has unwillingly found himself at odds with his predecessor on several issues in the past year, also did not want to be seen as consistently overturning every decision made before he entered the job. It seems that Eisenkot’s denunciation of the widespread campaign against both female tank soldiers and himself, as quoted by Yaniv Kubovich in Haaretz last week, was heard loud and clear in his successor’s office.

The decision to resume the pilot plan, which will likely lead to women serving in tanks in greater numbers, will apparently cost Kochavi some grumbling on the part of ultra-Orthodox and religious Zionist rabbis. But that may not be so terrible, as the bear hug he has received from them in recent months seemed, at times, to be about to break his bones.

The IDF confirmed that the first pilot proved that women have the potential to serve in tank units. The next phase of the program will be on a larger scale, involving 30 to 40 women, and it will also be longer than the first. In addition, a number of sensible changes will be made. The army will fine-tune conditions related to health, nutrition and physical training, and it will set minimum weight and height criteria for the recruits (in the first pilot, there was a complaint about a tank driver who had trouble reaching the pedals).

Female IDF tank commanders from pilot course with Chief Armored Corps Officer Brig. Gen. Guy Hasson, in June 2018. Two of the women petitioned the High Court.Credit: IDF Spokesman's Office

There are also plans to offer jobs in the standing army to the female tank commanders who have finished their compulsory service – most likely to be in charge of training the next generation. The new scheme is also expected to close the professional gaps between female tank soldiers and their male counterparts regarding certain exercises that demand more physical strength.

Women already comprise almost one-fifth of all IDF combat soldiers in compulsory service. In border defense units – in light infantry battalions like Caracal and in combat intelligence-gathering battalions – women constitute a majority. In the future, female tank units will also apparently join those sisters-in-arms.

In October, at the graduation ceremony of an officers training course, Kochavi said, “The only people who decide the IDF’s orders, regulations and norms are the officers, led by myself.” And that’s exactly what happened with his announcement this week – even if postponing the final decision by at least two years seems like an excessive delay.

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