Israeli Defense Minister Seeks to Backtrack on Plan to Cut Army Service

From 2018, male draftees are set to be discharged after serving 32 months, instead of three years

Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman sits next to IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot during a visit to a military exercise, September 12, 2017.
Ariel Hermoni / Defense Ministry

Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman wants to revisit the agreement between the defense establishment and the Finance Ministry to shorten compulsory army service for men. Next year, for the first time, draftees will be discharged after serving for two years and eight months (32 months), instead of three years. According to the agreement, compulsory service will be reduced further, to 30 months, for men enlisting after January 1, 2020.

As reported in Haaretz last week, Lieberman also seeks to increase the defense budget. Both cases involve changes to understandings reached in 2015 between his predecessor, Moshe Yaalon, and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, after talks in which Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot participated. Yaalon and Kahlon agreed on a stable budget for the 2016 to 2020 period, to facilitate long-term planning.

Liebermans argument in both cases is the need to adapt to changes in the region over the past two years. He presumably fears that the defense establishment went a step too far in its understandings with the treasury, and is assuming unacceptable risks as a result.

The defense minister is concerned the advantage gained by Syrian President Bashar Assad in the civil war, the rise in Irans position in connection to the war and the presence of Iranian and other Shiite forces in Syria, near the Israeli border. Also of concern is the regional arms race, including deals in which Arab states will buy billions of dollars of weapons from Western countries, motivated in part by their fear of Irans increasing military and political power.

Shortened compulsory military service, passed by the Knesset in March 2014, began with men who were drafted in July 2015 and will be discharged in March 2018. Compulsory service will be truncated by an additional two months in 2020, pending a cabinet discussion in 2019.

The first contraction of the draft is expected to reduce by several thousand the number of men in service in 2018, with the second reduction making itself felt from 2019. The changes will be felt in combat units, including junior officers in those units.

To prepare for the shorter draft, Eisenkot ordered a reduction in training times in the armored, engineering and artillery corps and a shift to focus on operational goals.

The assumption is that new recruits, including women, Druze and Bedouin, will continue to volunteer for combat service at current levels, and that conscription of ultra-Orthodox men will continue. But willingness to serve in combat units has in fact declined in recent years, and the recent overturn by the High Court of Justice of the law exempting yeshiva students from the draft promises to trigger a new crisis.