Between Haredi Conscription and War with Hezbollah (Hard Questions, Tough Answers - July 1, 2024)


Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.

Q. Last week, the Israel High Court of Justice ruled by a vote of nine to zero that yeshiva students must do military service. Without military service, state funding of yeshivot is cancelled. This is hardly a new issue for Israel; why is it now so dramatic?

A. Never before has the High Court intervened in this explosive issue in such a decisive way. No draft postponements; no requests for clarifications or quotas. Religious and conservative justices joined with liberals in laying down the law: equal service for all; urgently.

Q. Why urgently?

A. Because for the first time in 76 years, the Israel Defense Forces actually and acutely need the manpower that is embodied in the thousands of yeshiva students who until last week were officially exempted from service. For both the yeshivot and the IDF, two strategic realities have changed dramatically.

Back in 1948 when David Ben Gurion agreed to exempt 400 yeshiva students from service so they could immerse themselves in Torah study, he was acknowledging that after the destruction of the Holocaust, a minimum of Torah study was worth maintaining under state auspices. Today, in any given year, there are some 10,000 exemptions, many of them for young men who end up avoiding both the yeshiva and the IDF. (Another 1800 do actually serve in the IDF, having volunteered or been drafted.)

The Haredi or ultra-Orthodox sector those young men represent is by far the fastest growing demographic in Israel. It is anti-democratic, parasitic--living off state handouts-- denies women equal status and opportunity, and its many ‘courts’ are run like cults.

At the broad demographic and democratic level the Haredi phenomenon, having gathered momentum for decades, now poses a growing challenge to Israeli society. Within three decades, half of all Jewish children in the country are projected to be Haredi. But Israel’s secular, traditional, Orthodox and Arab sectors--in other words, everybody else--would have continued to acquiesce in the Haredi challenge were it not for the emergence, beginning on October 7, 2023, of the second new strategic reality: the security challenge.

Q. You mean presumably the threat posed by Hamas, Hezbollah and the rest of the Iran-led Axis of Resistance. How does this affect the need for military manpower?

A. Inspired and in many cases trained and armed by Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah wage highly sophisticated guerilla warfare that defies the assumptions underlying the structure of a modern army like the IDF. Israel’s army was in many ways built to fight classic battles with armor, from the air, and using highly sophisticated electronic warfare techniques. But Hamas uses primitive rockets and extensive tunnel networks. Its troops are heavily indoctrinated under Islam to martyr themselves. Its current top military leaders, Yihya Sinwar and Muhammed Def, are adept at hiding while exercising command from deep underground. Its weapons reserves and capacity to manufacture or smuggle more arms are impressive; they surprised IDF intelligence.

True, Israel has been fighting Hamas and Hezbollah for decades and, accordingly, had prior to October 7 readied an entire division of commandos for precisely this kind of warfare. But it turns out that one division is not enough. It emerges that the tunnels under Gaza are far more extensive than previously estimated, thereby requiring far more engineering units for detecting and destroying them.

War on a second front, with Hezbollah in the north, is liable to pose even more daunting logistics and manpower needs. Iran and its proxy militias in Iraq threaten to join the fray. In the West Bank, where messianist Jewish settlers backed by messianist ministers Smotrich and Ben Gvir are provoking conflict, militant Palestinians spearheaded by Hamas are threatening a full-fledged intifada.

Unlike Israel’s past wars which usually lasted barely a few weeks, these conflicts are liable to last many months, if not years. After nine months of fighting, IDF losses in dead and wounded in Gaza exceed the equivalent of a brigade. And after close to a year of intermittent service, exhausted reservists are losing motivation to report for duty. Yet the IDF is asking the Knesset to legislate an extension of reserve age beyond the current limit: 40. No wonder IDF planners project manpower needs that existing potential draft cohorts, without Haredi youth, cannot supply.

In short, the IDF has for the first time discovered that it needs more manpower to fight long-term, low-intensity, multi-front wars against militant Islamist non-state actors. The yeshiva students are the only available reserves. The Israeli mainstream is no longer impressed with Haredi protestations that Torah and Gemara studies constitute the equivalent of military victories in terms of Israeli security. This is particularly so, when so many yeshiva students are apparently really freeloaders and draft-dodgers who study neither Torah nor Gemara.

Until recently, accommodating the ultra-religious needs of Haredi youth in the army--extreme dietary restrictions, no contact with women, etc.--seemed like a doubtful burden for the IDF. No longer.

Q. So what is being done to remedy the situation?

A. The High Court decision has provoked a huge political, financial and ideological controversy over Haredi conscription. It is unfolding in the midst of an equally dramatic discussion--in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, in Beirut and Tehran, and in Washington—regarding the next step against Hezbollah.

At the time of writing, nothing has been decided on either front. But everything is on the table.

Q. First, regarding Haredi conscription . . .

A. Some Haredi politicians are prepared to discuss drafting 3000 youth immediately. Others refuse to compromise. Chairman of the Knesset Foreign and Security Affairs Committee Yuli Edelstein (Likud)--a key player regarding the necessary legislation--refuses to discuss any new law defining terms and quotas for Haredi conscription that is not supported by a consensus. But there is no consensus.

For its part, the security establishment is free to begin sending out draft notices.

Meanwhile, some in the Haredi establishment who are non-Zionist or anti-Zionist to the core, are discussing leaving the country to avoid the draft. But they are also raising funds among American Haredim to be able to administer Israeli Haredi yeshivot without the government’s financial support. The Haredi political parties are also threatening to bring down Netanyahu’s coalition, thereby freezing legislation pending new elections.

In other words, prospective solutions and remedies regarding Haredi conscription are literally all over the political map.

Q. And regarding Hezbollah . . .

A. Ostensibly, the readiness of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah to negotiate a ceasefire on terms acceptable to Israel, meaning a Hezbollah withdrawal from the border in accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 1701, is dependent on the nature of an Israel-Hamas agreement. The war is winding down in Gaza. The fate of some 120 hostages held by Hamas is still uncertain--meaning that the terms of any sort of ceasefire or end-of-conflict agreement are also uncertain.

Many of the relevant details regarding Lebanon are being mediated by President Biden’s team, Amos Hochstein and Brett McGurk, and by Egypt and Qatar regarding Hamas. On the Israeli side, bombastic and angry public criticism of the Biden administration by PM Netanyahu regarding alleged arms supply delays is ‘balanced’ by more discreet and constructive efforts in Washington by Defense Minister Galant.

All the while, Israel is threatening to expand the war against Hezbollah. Iran, as Hezbollah’s patron, is threatening to escalate against Israel.

Ceasefire with Hezbollah? Limited war in the north? Expanded war? An Israeli government collapse that freezes the situation? The scenarios are endless.

Q. That’s a lot of moving parts.

A. Indeed, these scenarios are all over the map too: the map of Israel, Lebanon and, in the event of serious escalation, the entire Middle East with the involvement of the US forces just sent by Biden to the region. A variety of countries are telling their nationals to leave Lebanon.

I put the near-term likelihood of serious escalation with Hezbollah at 35 percent.

Q. Bottom line: at this extremely tense juncture militarily, what does the unique controversy over Haredi military service signal for the future of Israel?

A. Tension over the Jewish nature and content of the State of Israel has been with us since the beginning in 1948. For most Israelis Judaism is, to one extent or another, both a nationality or ethnic identity and a religion. The balance between the two concepts has never been codified, and the tension between them is becoming more acute as those sectors of the population that identify themselves primarily by religion, the Haredim and in a different way the National Orthodox settler movement, become more numerous and more politically influential.

The days ahead will witness the dispatch of draft notices to thousands of Haredi youth. The Finance Ministry will begin freezing budgets and allotments for everything from Haredi institutions to families of Haredi draft-dodgers. The chaos and the anger in the Haredi sector will be palpable. And it will be political.

Will Netanyahu’s coalition hold, at least until July 28 when the Knesset recesses until after October high holidays? Will a war in the north alter everyone’s calculations?

Note how much seems to hinge these days on the religious ideology of extremists, both in Israel and among its neighbors. Welcome to the Middle East.

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To sum up: on October 7, 2023, two new existential strategic challenges emerged for Israel. One, the hostage situation, tests Israel’s dedication to its own raison d’etre, the safety and well-being of the Jewish people. The other, the need for Haredi Jews like everyone else to serve that commitment, tests Israel’s most basic values and its self-image as a democratic Jewish homeland.