Politics has hijacked the army, and it’s spreading through army bases like a contagious disease
Illustration: Sivan Schwam
“Every Hebrew mother must know that she has put the fate of her sons in the hands of commanders who are worthy of the charge.” Attributed to Ben-Gurion, that quote is engraved in bold, golden letters on the wood-paneled wall of the General Staff conference room in the Kiryah in Tel Aviv.
That motto looms large in the photos every new prime minister releases from his first meeting with the IDF general staff. He sits at the head of the table beside the IDF chief of staff, with major generals down the table to his right and left, with the motto on the wall behind him, above emblems of the state and army.
More than anything else, the statement reflects the IDF’s apolitical status over the 75 years since the founding of the state. Mothers who accompanied their sons to the recruiting office saw IDF commanders as worthy of their sacred trust, believing that their only consideration would be the security of the state and the welfare of the recruits.
Last weekend, even that motto became a political weapon in the battle over judicial reform. Billboards and full-page newspaper ads carried Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi’s portrait above the Ben-Gurion quote, in a provocation against Netanyahu, Levin, and the right-wing bloc.
Herzi Halevi, the IDF’s 23rd chief of staff, has found himself in an unprecedented dilemma, with the IDF being inexorably drawn into the political game over the past year. The threats by fighter pilots, special forces veterans, major generals, and former chiefs of staff to stop volunteering for reserve duty have placed IDF commanders in the eye of the storm, willingly or not.
In retrospect, Halevi’s selection process seems like a preview of the current impasse. Halevi was appointed to the post on the eve of the last elections by then defense minister Benny Gantz, who lost the post but has since captured first place in public opinion polls. At the time, the right-wing opposition petitioned the High Court against this critical appointment by a lame duck government, but Attorney General Gali Baharav Miara backed the government’s position, and the appointment was upheld.
If Halevi walked into a minefield upon taking office, he’s now found himself stranded in a booby-trapped Palestinian village. When the fighter pilots put out the first pamphlet threatening not to report for duty if the judicial reform went forward, he took flak from the right for his restrained and conciliatory response. Later, he condemned the politicization of the IDF, only to receive a broadside from the left.
Last week, perhaps preempting a future commission of inquiry, the chief of staff instructed the IDF spokesperson to sound the alarm with military reporters about the deterioration of the IDF’s combat readiness. Netanyahu fumed, demanding that Halevi recant the statement. Then the left plastered Halevi’s face on billboards over the Ben-Gurion quote.
Today, the Hebrew mother can’t know whether she’s putting the fate of her son in the hands of commanders, or abandoning him to politicians in uniform. Politics has hijacked the army, and it’s spreading through army bases like a contagious disease.
“WE don’t have room for too many chareidim, with all the difficulties entailed in their integration. The maximum we can absorb is two battalions.” This was the message relayed recently to a prominent Jewish-American philanthropist who has donated millions for designing the tracks to integrate chareidim into the IDF.
The IDF’s willingness to integrate chareidim into its ranks has nosedived. The chareidi administrative division, a body formed to oversee the integration of chareidi recruits, is in the process of being wound down and disbanded. Chareidi companies are being dissolved, and some chareidi recruits who had progressed months along into the track were informed recently of its elimination.
In the past, senior defense establishment officials prided themselves on the tracks for absorbing chareidim, seeing them as a model for integration. But all that only remained relevant until the IDF realized that the chareidi units could go from being a neglected minority to a significant presence that could not be ignored.
The judicial crisis has demonstrated that the army’s commanders have a clear agenda. Almost every single former major general or chief of staff is aligned with the left, which sees the elimination of the reasonableness standard as the end of democracy. Incumbent staff officers are forced to tread more carefully. While their relatives protest in the streets, they’ve taken a subtler approach, apparently trying to stop the reform on security grounds.
Under these circumstances, the last thing the IDF needs is battalions of chareidim, in an upgraded version of the hesder arrangement, forcing gender separation, glatt kosher food, strict Shabbos observance, and everything else entailed in the chareidi lifestyle. The IDF won’t say it out loud, but quietly, it’s doing whatever is necessary to avoid setting up special frameworks for chareidi recruits, whether they’re there voluntarily or through compulsion.
The template for the proposed law on draft exemptions for yeshivah students isn’t the brainchild of chareidi MKs but rather of the army itself. Reluctant to see battalions of chareidim storming the recruiting offices, the IDF is proposing a multi-layered solution that would both exempt yeshivah students and upgrade soldiers’ salaries and benefits after discharge. When the chareidi MKs heard the proposal, they pounced on it.
But here too, political division got in the way of substantive discourse. The Achim Laneshek (“Brothers in Arms”) protest movement has also paralyzed IDF officials who pushed the proposal on professional grounds. Defense Ministry legal advisors got cold feet, and even Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, who has expressed support for the proposal, had to execute a U-turn. Gallant met with chareidi MKs and ministers and explained that in light of the protests, he would not be able to advance the IDF’s own proposal.
As Elul begins and yeshivah bochurim return to their benches, the chareidi representatives find themselves in a bit of a pickle.
“In light of the protest movement, we have to think very carefully about whether to bring forward the bill when the winter session convenes,” Netanyahu hinted delicately in his meeting with Justice Minister Yariv Levin and Shas chair Aryeh Deri.
“We’ve had your back all the way, even when it went against our instincts,” Deri responded, demanding full compensation for everything chareidi Jewry had to swallow in its support for judicial reform.
It won’t be easy, as they say in the yeshivah world about the start of a winter zeman in a leap year. The road to legislation on the draft status of yeshivah bochurim is riddled with obstacles, in light of the mistakes that have been made until now.
At least there’s one thing in common between the two poles. While the Hebrew mother who sends her son to the IDF can’t sleep over the behavior of the commanders, the chareidi mother who sends her son off to yeshivah is losing sleep over the behavior of chareidi politicians.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 975)
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