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The reason for Lieberman upending Netanyahu’s government

  • Paula
Israelis are going to the polls again over an issue that is as divisive as it is seemingly unsolvable. Should ultra-Orthodox (haredi) men serve in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), or not?
by PAULA SLIER | Jun 06, 2019

The former defence minister and leader of the Yisrael Beiteinu (right-wing secular) party, Avigdor Lieberman, is adamant that they should. Last year, he drafted a bill proposing annual enlistment targets for the haredi community that would increase each year. If the targets were not met, there would be financial penalties against ultra-orthodox institutions.

The bill infuriated the religious parties who were – and will again be – part of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing bloc. Without them, Netanyahu doesn’t have a majority in the Knesset (parliament).

The problem last week was that without Lieberman, he also doesn’t. The intractable position of both sides means that Israel is holding what many feel is an unnecessary election that will cost the country millions of dollars.

What’s more, it begs the question: does the IDF actually need these ultra-Orthodox soldiers, or are Israelis going to elections over something the IDF might not actually want?

I posed this question to a random group of Israelis. Every single one, without fail, told me that the IDF didn’t need soldiers who didn’t want to serve. They said these “soldiers” become a danger to themselves and others. This is backed up by figures.

The IDF is struggling with a shortage of troops. After a 2015 amendment to the country’s draft law, mandatory service for men dropped from three years to two years and eight months. By next year, there are plans to reduce it even further.

Lieberman’s proposal requires that more than 3 000 ultra-Orthodox men enlist each year, and just more than 600 take part in some kind of national service.

These numbers would then increase by a few percentage points annually. This is what all the fuss is about. But, and this is an important point, these numbers are still far short of making up the deficiency the army is grappling with.

Lieberman himself admitted that the battle was more symbolic than anything else.

And, it’s extremely emotive. An Israeli mother whose son is serving in the army told me, “We are talking about our children’s blood. There is a specific discrimination between our children and the ultra-Orthodox children. Fair is not even the word. I think our inner strength as a society is breaking. We are becoming two societies – it’s them and us. It’s them that don’t serve, don’t work. It’s us who serve, work, support them. It has become them and us. But we are one nation, and it shouldn’t happen.”

By contrast, a young yeshiva student I interviewed defended his decision not to go to the army. “An intelligence soldier or a non-combat soldier is not necessarily putting his life at risk,” he said, “and their contribution to Israel’s security does not fall short of those who do risk their lives. I never saw the mother of an infantry soldier complain to the mother of an intelligence soldier, and ask her, ‘How come my son is risking his life, and your son is not?’

“I am part of a ‘unit’ that preserves the Jewish intellect, and the Jewish mind. I think this is as important as any soldier. When the war is over, what will we have to come back to, what will we have left of our Jewish heritage if there are not ‘soldiers’ like me?”

When Israel was founded in 1948, religious communities who did not serve in the IDF and instead studied Torah were a small percentage of the total Israeli Jewish population. But the ultra-Orthodox community is growing quickly. By 2065, it is expected to make up a third of the population.

Still, as a reserve soldier who spoke to me insisted, “These are young men who don’t want to be in the army. What are we going to do? Force them? I don’t want to put my life in the hands of a soldier who doesn’t want to be there in the first place.

“There are so many willing, able, and hugely impressive young men and women who want to serve their country. We really don’t need a few hundred who will land up costing us more – both in terms of resilience and money.”

That much is true. The IDF spends twice as much accommodating haredi soldiers within an ultra-religious framework than it does others. Most come from relatively low socioeconomic backgrounds, and many are treated as ‘lone soldiers’ after being shunned and cast out from their families.

The close proximity to female soldiers is another reason why many ultra-orthodox men choose not to serve. As more women join combat units, this becomes another headache for the army to deal with.

There are some middle grounds like the Nahal Haredi battalion which comprises about 1 000 religious soldiers who spend half their day learning while serving in a fully segregated environment. Initiatives aimed at helping religious soldiers on their release from service can also incentivise such young men to serve, especially when one in two ultra-orthodox males is unemployed.

But for the IDF itself, the question of whether a few hundred more soldiers – religious or not – join its ranks is not consequential.

Much more pressing are its concerns about the proposed two-month service reduction next year, and receiving a larger state budget. The latter would help motivate soldiers to make a career in the military. It would also allow the IDF to outsource some basic services to civilian companies instead of relying on its troops to perform them.

In the long run, this would assist with the shortage in numbers much more than all the hysteria and attention around ultra-Orthodox conscription.

Having said all of the above, it’s worth pointing out that most Israelis believe that Lieberman is using this issue to upend Netanyahu. Not that he doesn’t care about the haredi enlistment issue – he does – but most people in Israel believe he cares more about becoming a future prime minister.

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