Does Israel Need Ultra-Orthodox Recruits to Defend Itself?

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
July 19 2012 6:59 PM

Draft Dodgers

The attack in Bulgaria is a reminder of the dangers. But does Israel need ultra-Orthodox recruits to defend itself?

Young Israeli Soldiers.
An honor guard of Israeli soldiers stands to attention at the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City. Israel faces a shortage of soldiers in future years.

Photograph by Gali Tibbon/Getty Images.

Even for Israel, the last several days have been dizzying. Within 48 hours, Israelis witnessed a deadly attack on their fellow citizens overseas and saw their political system at home rattled by a coalition split that could bring down the government in the coming weeks.

The killing of five Israelis and the wounding of three dozen more in a suicide attack on a tour bus in Bulgaria on Wednesday was a reminder of the dangers Israel’s citizens face when traveling abroad and raised the specter of Israeli retaliation. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu blamed Tehran for the attack and pledged to respond to ``Iran’s terror.’’ Defense Minister Ehud Barak promised Israel’s security services would do all they could to punish those responsible. Israeli troops were immediately dispatched to Bulgaria from the home front command, air force, and medical corps to help the victims.

The terror attack came just a day after the withdrawal of the moderate Kadima party from Netanyahu’s mammoth national unity government, leaving Netanyahu’s coalition weaker and more hawkish than before. Israel is probably headed to new elections soon. And any slim chance of reviving Palestinian peace talks has been quashed in the meantime. The nub of this coalition dispute? Netanyahu and Kadima’s party chief, Shaul Mofaz, could not agree on how many ultra-Orthodox Jewish seminary students to draft into military service.

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Most observers saw the disagreement as the latest round in a long-fought battle between secular and ultra-Orthodox Jewish Israelis over who must provide for the nation’s defense. Many who do serve are tired of shouldering the burden while devout seminary students attend classes and receive government stipends. But the bloody Bulgaria attack helped to amplify what really matters most about the Mofaz-Netanyahu split: As Israel confronts new terror threats abroad and Israel’s regional security assumptions are upended by the Arab Spring, the country’s military is facing a manpower crunch.

In other words, the argument over how many ultra-Orthodox students to draft is not a mere coalition bickering point. It’s a question about how to address a core Israeli need as the military grapples with new long-term, strategic vulnerabilities.

Back in November 2010, two months before the eruption of the Arab revolutions, I reported for the Washington Post on how growing numbers of Israelis are avoiding conscription, leaving military planners to worry the army won’t have the troops it needs in the future.

The biggest reason cited for the declining service rate was the growing number of ultra-Orthodox Jews who study full-time in yeshivas and don’t serve. Other Israelis are exempted for health reasons, criminal records, or because they live abroad.

At the time, the military said it was losing 13 percent of its potential draftees because of ultra-Orthodox exemptions and that the number was expected to increase to 20 percent by 2020 because of the higher birth rate in that population. Israeli Arabs, who make up 20 percent of the overall population, also do not serve, creating similar calls for some kind of national service. ``Right now we have a problem because we lack soldiers,’’ Brig. Gen. Amir Rogovski, head of personnel planning in the IDF’s manpower branch, told me at the time. ``When you see the forecast for 2020, it’s going to be much worse.’’

Citing an aide to Defense Minister Ehud Barak, the New York Times reported Tuesday that yeshiva students may begin to be drafted next month. (A recent order from the country’s highest court declared the ultra-Orthodox exemption unconstitutional.) But attempts to entice them to serve started long ago. In 2010, the Israeli military was actively trying to persuade more ultra-Orthodox young people to volunteer by expanding efforts to provide special food, extra time for prayer, and making service compatible with religious practice. Still, the ultra-Orthodox community remains fiercely opposed to military service and whatever success army recruiters may have had, it fell far short of the military’s needs.

The problem with Israel’s troop levels has become all the more acute with the election of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi as president of Egypt and the Syrian civil war on Israel’s border. In late 2010, Israeli military planners took a stable relationship with Egypt for granted. They did not worry too deeply about direct attacks from Syria while Bashar al-Assad was in power. Now they have to rethink their assumptions of two major borders.

Recent attacks and kidnappings in the Sinai Peninsula, rocket attacks into the Israeli southern tourist town of Eilat, and other border skirmishes have all highlighted the need for more people in uniform. And after Wednesday’s terrorist attack it isn’t hard to imagine similar attacks close to home. Israeli military planners, I’m told, worry about the nightmare scenario of a rocket fired from the Sinai striking an Israeli school bus. The Bulgaria attack—like recent attempts on Israelis in Thailand, India, Georgia, Kenya, and Cyprus—have demonstrated the need for more security personnel and resources to protect Israelis abroad. The prospect of military confrontation with either Iran or the terror groups it sponsors looms large.

Mofaz, a former military chief of staff, wanted a broad draft of yeshiva students. Netanyahu, beholden to the rest of his right-wing and heavily religious coalition, wanted something narrower and more flexible. A court-ordered Aug. 1 deadline to amend the law forced the issue and the coalition fell apart.

No one is certain what will happen next. Defense Minister Barak has said that he may propose temporary legislation and begin drafting a small but unspecified number of ultra-Orthodox students. Netanyahu hasn’t made his own plan clear. Regardless, any attempt to gain recruits from this community will face fierce opposition from religious parties that make up a significant portion of his coalition.

Netanyahu is still the most popular politician in Israel, according to recent polls. He will likely find a way to hold on to power in the near term whether there are elections or not. The peace process will remain in hiatus for the time being whether Mofaz is in the government or in the opposition. But the argument over the draft—and the vulnerability it is meant to address—isn’t going away.

Janine Zacharia, formerly the Jerusalem bureau chief of the Washington Post, is the Carlos Kelly McClatchy visiting lecturer at Stanford University.

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