That Israel may be heading toward a second general election within months — if Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fails to form a majority coalition — actually has relatively little to do with the military or its very real manpower concerns, even though this failure stems from irreconcilable differences between the secular Yisrael Beytenu party and the ultra-Orthodox factions over the conscription of yeshiva students.
Yisrael Beytenu chief Avigdor Liberman is demanding an increase in the level of ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, enlistment in the Israel Defense Forces, with the threat of economic sanctions on ultra-Orthodox institutions if they do not meet these goals. The Haredi parties, United Torah Judaism and Shas, are demanding precisely the opposite: more exemptions for their communities’ yeshiva students. And Netanyahu needs both Liberman and the ultra-Orthodox parties for a majority coalition.
The IDF is indeed grappling with the potential threat of significant troop shortages following a 2015 amendment to the country’s draft law that cut the mandatory service for men from three years to two years and eight months, and plans to further reduce males’ service to 30 months beginning in 2020.
Yet while ostensibly stemming from the manpower needs of the military, the direct impetus for this partisan fight between Yisrael Beytenu and the Haredi parties comes not from IDF requests, but from legal necessity.
In 2012, the High Court of Justice struck down the 2002 “Tal Law,” which had dictated ultra-Orthodox enlistment levels but was found to do so unfairly and thus illegally. A more demanding replacement law was proposed in 2013 by the Yesh Atid party, but it was soon amended and moderated once the Haredi parties were brought back into the government. In 2017, the High Court struck down that law as well, declaring it similarly unjust.
Even during the years when this weakened 2013 replacement law was in effect, the IDF never reached the prescribed Haredi enlistment numbers, sometimes falling short by hundreds of recruits.
While Netanyahu now needs to find another formulation, one that simultaneously satisfies the demands of Liberman, the ultra-Orthodox parties, and the High Court of Justice, ensuring the IDF has its manpower requirements met is not one of these demands. And nor would even the most dramatic of proposals that are seriously being considered come close to meeting the IDF’s needs.
Liberman’s plan, while seen as entirely too extreme by the Haredi factions, would see only a comparatively modest increase in the number of ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students. The proposal put forward by Liberman’s Defense Ministry last year would initially require 3,348 ultra-Orthodox men to enlist in the IDF each year and another 648 take part in some kind of national service, a small increase on the current quotas. These numbers would increase, first by eight percent each year for three years, then 6.5 percent for another three years and finally by five percent for four more years, reaching 5,737 ultra-Orthodox military recruits and 1,107 national servicemen after a decade.
If the draft falls short of 95% of these targets, sanctions in the form of cuts to state funds allocated to ultra-Orthodox yeshivas would be put in place. The fines would increase each year the targets are missed.
On Monday, Liberman confirmed that this was a symbolic battle over the nature of the country, not one about the IDF’s readiness for war.
“It’s not just the draft law. The draft law became a symbol. And we certainly won’t give up on our symbols… but look at what is happening here,” he said, referring to demands by the Haredi parties in recent months to halt all government work on Saturday.
“I want to emphasize another time: We are in favor of a Jewish state, we are against a halachic state,” Liberman added, using the Hebrew term for Jewish law.
Since the 2015 cutback, the military has adopted a host of new measures and programs to make up for its manpower losses, and the prospect of the additional reduction in 2020 is still being protested by the IDF in the halls of the Kirya — the Defense Ministry and military headquarters — and the Knesset.
The enlistment of these few hundred more Haredi recruits each year is not likely to have a significant effect on the military’s manpower shortages, nor is it trumpeted by IDF officials as a potential game-changer on this front, especially as ultra-Orthodox servicemen require on average more investment per soldier by the IDF due to their community’s relatively low socioeconomic position.
There are, of course, other reasons for encouraging greater Haredi enlistment in the military beyond simple manpower numbers.
Israel remains one of the few countries around the world with near universal conscription, and the IDF is described as a “people’s army,” one that is supposed to reflect the diverse nature of Israeli society.
This is a “supreme value that will continue to serve as the basis for the IDF’s activities and to direct it,” the Defense Ministry wrote in its recommendations last year.
The military can also serve as an important economic and social springboard, offering people skills, qualifications and experiences that would be otherwise difficult or expensive to obtain — especially for a comparatively poor and economically underperforming community like Israel’s ultra-Orthodox.
For the relatively insular Haredi community, however, the prospect of the military’s diverse landscape is precisely its concern.
This is also the impediment to ultra-Orthodox participation in national service, as a substitute for military enlistment. For many Haredi Israelis, participation in any secular or, at least, non-religious framework is inherently problematic, even if this in practice means remaining inside their communities — helping the elderly, working in schools or serving as emergency medical personnel.
For the military, an end to the proposed two-month service reduction in 2020 and a larger budget — both to offer soldiers with much-needed skill sets career positions and to outsource basic services on IDF bases to civilian companies instead of relying on troops to perform them — are far more pressing concerns than a few hundred more troops.