IM Issue 135 – July/August 2019

Netanyahu, Lieberman and the IDF – The Backstory

April 9th with the Likud party capturing 36 seats in the Knesset, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared ready to capture a fourth consecutive term, with a clear path to build a coalition government with his traditional political partners. But a crisis with his longtime ally and erstwhile rival Avigdor Lieberman thrust the country into unchartered territory. Without Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party and the five Knesset seats it won in the April 9th election, the Prime Minister’s Likud party could not muster a 61-seat majority and new elections have been called for in mid-September.

So what’s the story behind Lieberman’s intransigence, and the story behind that story? Well, Lieberman, a secular West Bank settler, has long railed against the growing
clout of the ultra-Orthodox in Israeli society. This time, his particular ire was focused on the issue of the ultra-Orthodox and IDF conscription. While military service is
mandatory for all 18-year-old Jewish Israelis, Orthodox students engaged in full-time religious studies have been exempted from compulsory military service. As the ultra-
Orthodox minority has grown in size and political power, now 11 percent of Israel’s population, that exemption has become increasingly contentious.

Lieberman simply refused to join Netanyahu’s coalition unless the prime minister committed to passing his legislative bill, without amendment, that would conscript more
ultra-Orthodox men and impose penalties on yeshivas that don’t comply. Netanyahu couldn’t do that without losing support from the two ultra-Orthodox parties in his
coalition that control 16 Knesset seats. A governing coalition could not formed and for the first time in Israel’s history, two national elections will be held in one calendar year.

Of course, there’s much more at play here than the issue of the IDF and ultra-Orthodox conscription. There’s intense political rivalry and deep levels of mistrust between
Netanyahu and Lieberman. Lieberman has accused the Prime Minister of fostering, in his words, “a cult of personality.” In a narrower context, he was irate over both the way the latest round of fighting in Gaza ended and the fact that Qatar was allowed to pour money into Hamas-controlled territory. Then there was the elephant in the room — the pending indictments against the Prime Minister. But Lieberman latched onto the conscription issue and didn’t let go until the coalition collapsed.

So now, what’s the back story? Well, it starts with David Ben Gurion who understood from day one that a tiny democracy surrounded by enemies would have to mobilize its entire society if it were to survive. This is the key reason he ruled out a professional army, opting instead for a militia based on universal conscription. But Ben Gurion went further, envisioning the IDF not merely as a capable fighting force but as the key instrument, in the hands of civilian leadership, for fusing the various “tribes” that make up Israeli society into a unified “People’s Army.” In a nutshell, the founding idea was that the IDF could be the “melting pot” of Israeli society, in which the face of the army and the face of a young immigrant society would be shaped, regardless of social status, ethnic origins, ideology, or religious inclination. The IDF was to be the
mechanism by which a model society would be created.

From the start, therefore, the IDF was intended to serve the dual purpose of defending Israel and forging its identity. And universal compulsory military service came to be a cornerstone of Israel’s military doctrine and a major building bloc of its society, economy, and political system.

This model has come under pressure in recent years.

First, changes in the threats faced by Israel, along with advances in technology, and the rapid growth of Israel’s population, weaken the need for universal conscription. The nature of the battlefield and the specific threats to the State of Israel have changed dramatically over the past decades. Currently, no state in the vicinity of Israel’s
borders can mount a conventional ground invasion of the sort that would require a large standing army or the capacity to mobilize large numbers of reservists quickly. On the other hand, new threats, no less significant, have emerged: terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, and cyber – all of which require sophisticated technological, engineering and intelligence capabilities. These new threats beckon for professional technologists, not necessarily in large numbers, but of very high caliber. This brings into question whether Israel still needs all the manpower provided by three years of compulsory service.

Second, growing numbers of Israeli youth, mainly Arab and ultra-Orthodox, do not serve. And here we get back to Lieberman and his intransigence. The core issue is equality: the 50% who serve understandably resent the fact that the burden is not shared by all. This latter point calls into question the “universal” character of conscription and is slowly eroding the willingness to serve among other sectors of Israeli society. Of the approximately 120,000 Israelis who reach 18 every year, only about 50% join the IDF. Arab Israelis, who make up approximately 25% of the annual cohort, are not called up at all. A further 10% of the overall cohort group is exempt for medical and other reasons. By law, women can be exempted if they sign a declaration citing religious reasons – and about a third of all women do declare. Finally, of the more than 10,000 ultra-Orthodox men eligible for military service each year, more than 70% are exempted because of fulltime religious studies.

The complexity of these issues and the difficulties in finding workable solutions can hardly be overstated, particularly in a parliamentary system like Israel’s where nearly a
dozen political parties, most with divergent political views and priorities, are represented in the Knesset. Lieberman is not alone.

Allan Myer