There is no reason why a woman could not, or should not, become a defense minister in Israel, said the country’s current holder of that title, Moshe Ya'alon.
“Women serve as instructors in the Air Force, the Navy and of course in the Intelligence Corps, where more than half of the recruits are women. They are highlycapable and their contributions to the IDF are significant,” Ya’alon told a group of some 700 women from the Women's International Zionist Organization who gathered Thursday at a Tel Aviv hotel.
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“A female defense minister? Sure,” he said, adding: “In any case, you don’t have to have military experience for that job. You just need common sense."
Speaking to the women, members of WIZO from 40 countries who are in Israel this week for their organization’s 26th world general meeting, Ya’alon went on to say that a more complicated question might be whether a woman could rise to the rank of the chief of staff – a role that calls for moving up through the military's ranks and traditionally also having combat experience.
“But even that is an option today,” he stressed. “If we have female battalion commanders – and we now do – there could be a female chief of staff one day too.”
Prodded by his interviewer – i24 news’ diplomatic correspondent Tal Shalev – the defense minister was forced to agree that despite the changes taking place in Israel’s military – it might yet take some time before a woman came after his job, or rose to the position of chief of staff.
The days in which an Israeli president – Ezer Weizman – could merrily suggest to Alice Miller – who was petitioning the High Court to be allowed into pilot training – that she'd be better off staying home and mending socks – are technically over.
But glass ceilings in the military clearly still exist, pointed out Shalev.
Israel has long been one of the few countries in the world with a mandatory military service for women – female soldiers make up over 30 percent of the IDF’s recruits, and over 50 percent of the military’s officers. In the United States, by comparison, women make up only some 15 percent of the troops. But these numbers are somewhat misleading.
It was not until 2000 that women in Israel were given the right to serve in combat roles, and even since then, their rise in the ranks and their integration has proved a slow process.
Speaking earlier this week at a conference of the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, the highest ranking female in the IDF, Maj. Gen. (ret.) Orna Barbivai, who commanded the Manpower Directorate, pointed out that for women within the military – as for other populations gaining new standing in the establishment, like the orthodox – change has been steady, but almost necessarily slow, too.
“We need to carry out a balancing act while making these changes,” she said. “We want to be smart, and respectful and careful when bringing in new populations, and make real changes while making sure not to tamper with some of the important basic, and needed military frameworks.”
The 2000 equality amendment to the Military Service law stated that women would have the right to serve in any role in the IDF, but the question of who would be “suitable” and “capable” for what role was left to the discretion of military leaders, on a case-by-case basis.
On paper, some 92 percent of army positions are open to women, including elite units in the Artillery Corps and combat roles in the Navy, Air Force, Home Front Command and Military Police. In addition to the Caracal Battalion – a light infantry force that is made up of 70 percent female soldiers – the IDF has two more mixed gender battalions operating along its borders. Last year, the IDF appointed its first female combat battalion commander, Lt. Col. Oshrat Bachar, who heads the Eitam Battalion attached to Southern Command.
But still, as Ya’alon admitted Thursday, only five percent of women recruits go to serve in these combat roles. Even this is progress, for “until recently,” he said, it was just two percent.
“We encourage more volunteers,” he said. “And of course we benefit from these women. Unlike the way it is with the men, we don’t force them to take on combat roles. But if they volunteer, we allow them.”
Women in the IDF normally only serve for two years (although the IDF is pushing to lengthen the service from 24 to 28 months) and rarely do reserve duty. So, to join a combat unit, a women has to volunteer and agree to serve an extra year. Female combat soldiers, like men, serve three years of mandatory service and continue in reserves service up to age 38, even after they become mothers.
“We have a couple of pilots. We have officers in the Navy. And we have certain battalions that are made up of men and women serving together, along the borders,” said Ya’alon. “In the past we had only one such [mixed] unit. Now we have three.”
“So, as you see,” he concluded, to applause from the WIZO women “this is a developing situation.”