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Knesset measure slicing months off army service comes under fire

Several members of powerful committee question ‘rushed’ move to shorten male soldiers’ service by 2 months from 2020, but only one MK votes against

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

Illustrative: IDF soldiers boarding a train. (Shay Levy/Flash90)
Illustrative: IDF soldiers boarding a train. (Shay Levy/Flash90)

Zionist Union MK and former IDF general Eyal Ben-Reuven denounced a Knesset committee’s approval of a plan to shorten the mandatory army service for men from 32 to 30 months on Monday, saying the decision was made without all the necessary information and without going through the normal channels.

“The army can’t tell us anything about [what this law will do.] It’s all ‘it seems’, ‘it seems’, ‘it seems.’ That’s what the army says, ‘It seems,” and that’s what we voted on today. Unfortunately, that law passed,” Ben-Reuven told The Times of Israel, following the bill’s approval in the powerful Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.

“I’m embarrassed for the Knesset and for the IDF,” he added, referring to his 35-year history in the army.

Though other members of the committee voiced opposition to the measure in discussions, Ben-Reuven was the only MK to vote against the decision.

Zionist Union MK Eyal Ben-Reuven in the Knesset on March 29, 2015. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)
Zionist Union MK Eyal Ben-Reuven in the Knesset on March 29, 2015. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

The proposed amendment is part of what’s known as the Arrangements Law, a piece of legislation presented by the government each year that contains the bills and measures needed to ensure it can maintain the budget.

A change to mandatory service time is connected to the budget as it comes from an agreement between the Finance Ministry and Defense Ministry, as part of the Israel Defense Forces attempts to streamline and cut costs. If passed, which it likely will, the proposal will go into effect in 2020. It will only affect the mandatory service of male soldiers. Women will still serve for two years, unless they volunteer for more.

It is the second cut to male soldiers’ service requirements proposed in recent years. Beginning in July 2015, men had their required service time decreased from 36 to 32 months.

As an aspect of the Arrangements Law, and not a law in its own right, the proposal will forego the usual checks and balances that legislation is subjected to, as it’s pushed through the Knesset by the majority government coalition.

‘Putting the decrease of mandatory service into an Arrangements Law, that cheapens the issue’

To Ben-Reuven and other members of the committee, an issue as closely tied to Israel’s security as mandatory army service requirements should not be tacked onto a large budget-related bill, but should be discussed on its own merit, especially as many of the details surrounding the proposal have yet to be finalized by the IDF.

“I oppose absolutely making a decision like shortening IDF service — a systematic change that affects the entire nation and every family in it that sends its son to the army — as part of an Arrangements Law. The Arrangements Law is a way to circumvent all the required discussions. It’s a shortcut,” Ben-Reuven said.

“Putting the decrease of mandatory service into an Arrangements Law, that cheapens the issue,” he said, his voice rising.

MK Ofer Shelah (Yesh Atid) seen during the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee meeting at the Knesset, during the committee's vote on a new chairman, on Monday, May 12, 2014. (Flash90)
MK Ofer Shelah (Yesh Atid) seen during the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee meeting at the Knesset, during the committee’s vote on a new chairman, on Monday, May 12, 2014. (Flash90)

Ahead of the vote on Monday, MK Ofer Shelah of Yesh Atid attempted to address the problem by proposing to have the amendment split from the Arrangements Law, but his measure was shot down by the committee.

In addition to Ben-Reuven’s opposition to the parliamentary tactic used to pass the proposal, the former IDF general took issue with the numerous unknowns associated with the plan.

‘The last shortening of mandatory service was larger and was done in less time and with staff-level work backing it up’

Though the change would not go into effect until 2020, both Shelah and Ben-Reuven criticized the fact that the decision was made without the army having conducted research on the level of the General Staff into its ramifications.

The two questioned why there is a rush to approve a measure that won’t go into effect for another few years.

“The last shortening of mandatory service was larger and was done in less time and with staff-level work backing it up,” Shelah said, during the discussion in the committee.

Though this proposal is for a 2-month reduction, it may counterintuitively end up being more complicated for the army to handle than the previous 4-month decrease.

Soldiers in the mixed gender Cheetah Battalion participate in a squad exercise in southern Israel on November 16, 2015. (IDF Spokesperson's Unit/Flickr)
Soldiers in the mixed gender Cheetah Battalion participate in a squad exercise in southern Israel on November 16, 2015. (IDF Spokesperson’s Unit/Flickr)

Especially for combat soldiers, the IDF sets its schedule by 4-month increments. Soldiers go through a cycle of deployment for four months, then training for four months, then deployment, then training, and so on.

While cutting the service time from 36 to 32 months just meant dropping one of those training or deployment periods, cutting it to 30 months would require the army to make some kind of structural change.

“The army says it looks like they’ll have to change their training schedules, all their training schedules, in light of this decision. The drafts will have to change. This has huge ramifications, and the army hasn’t done any staff-level work on it — that’s what the army’s saying, we haven’t done any work,” Ben-Reuven said.

“And yet their cramming this bill into the Arrangements Law — what’s burning?” he asked, rhetorically.

According to army forecasts, both the current drop to 32 months and the further decrease to 30 will result in a noticeable reduction in the number of male soldiers serving in the IDF in the coming years.

‘And yet their cramming this bill into the Arrangements Law — what’s burning?’

Figures presented by the IDF’s Manpower Directorate last month showed a drop in many crucial positions as a result of the new 32-month service, including in the number of combat soldiers, drivers, soldiers in cyber units and officers.

Yet Brig. Gen. Eran Shani, head of human resources in the Manpower Directorate, assured the committee members that Israel’s security would not be affected by the decrease in the overall number of conscripted soldiers, as the army’s total fighting force is more than two-thirds reservists.

`An Israeli reservist packs his gear after ending a deployment near Gaza during Operation Defensive Shield. Reservist had their yearly grant slashed by a third this year due to the operation (photo credit: Tsafrir Abayov/Flash90)
`An Israeli reservist packs his gear after ending a deployment near Gaza during Operation Defensive Shield. (Tsafrir Abayov/Flash90)

“Wars are decided by the reserves, not by the standing army,” Shani told the committee last month.

“The army would be happy to have soldiers… but there are other things the country needs,” he said.

The decision also had its champions. Committee members Amir Ohana and Rachel Azaria, from Likud and Kulanu, respectively, praised the measure, noting its potentially positive influence on the Israeli economy as more people would join the workforce, as well as its immediate impact on individual soldiers.

“These are good tidings for the Israeli market. An early release to the workforce will strengthen the market and will help with the State of Israel’s economic challenges,” Azaria said in a statement.

“This is good news for those serving and for Israeli society — and it is without harming the security of the nation,” Ohana said.

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