Female soldiers near Beit El.
Female soldiers near Beit El. Israel news photo: Flash 90

A year after the present Coalition began drawing up plans for egalitarian reforms in the military, a mysterious political force has torpedoed the idea of making the length of military service equal for men and women – and the likely suspects are Israel's powerful women's organizations.

The planning process for the revolutionary change began with the establishment of the Perry Committee, shortly after the January 2013 elections. Besides co-opting hareidi men into the military, the committee sought to neutralize gender differences in the military, and the IDF accordingly prepared detailed plans for equalizing the length of service of men and women. Instead of three years and two years, respectively, the intention was to shorten men's period of mandatory service and lengthen women's, but it now appears that the powerful feminist lobby in the Knesset doesn't like the second part of the deal.

The committee headed by MK Ayelet Shaked (Jewish Home) – which took over from the Perry Committee and is charged with redefining terms of service for men and women, as well as for religious and secular soldiers – voted Monday to shorten men's service by four months, to 32 months. However, MK Shaked announced that the committee could not muster a majority for lengthening women's service by four months, to fill the gap in manpower that would result from reducing men's service.

While no one said which political force torpedoed the idea of lengthening women's service, experts agree that the only real “suspect” is the much-feared women's lobby – considered by MKs to be the most powerful single interest group in Israel's present-day political arena.

Interestingly, while other aspects of the plan were openly voted on, the MKs preferred not to conduct an embarrassing vote regarding women's compulsory service. Instead, MK Shaked informed Brigadier General Gadi Agmon of the IDF Personnel Directorate right at the start of Monday's committee session that there was no majority on the committee to support extending women’s military service to 28 months. She asked Agmon to present an alternative plan by Wednesday. Agmon told the committee: “Shortening men's service was agreed to by us as part of a larger whole that included lengthening women's service. Without that, we it would be impossible to shorten the men's service.”

Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon is extremely unhappy with Shaked's announcement, and is now planning to ask for a revote on the idea of shortening men's service. Sources close to Yaalon said that “what happened in the committee runs counter to previous decisions.”

'Making a mockery of the army'

“You can't make a mockery of the entire system and of the army," senior sources in the defense system added. "The planned change is a dramatic one that the army and security establishment have been preparing for, and thorough work has been carried out in order to prepare it. You can't just throw everything out the window because of whims and because of politics. You can't make a mockery of the establishment, certainly not with something that has already been agreed upon.”

Senior sources in the IDF made clear Tuesday that the change in length of service is a package deal, which requires that all of the conditions agreed upon in the Shaked Committee be carried out – including meaningful enlistment of hareidim, lengthening women's mandatory service and shortening that of men.

The rejection of equality by the feminist leadership is not a new theme in Israeli politics.

In the present Knesset, feminist MKs have been stonewalling a bill cancelling the Tender Years' Doctrine in Israeli divorce law, vowing to “bury” it and loudly arguing against the single dissenting voice of Likud-Beytenu MK Gila Gamliel.

In 2011, an initiative to equalize the age of retirement for men and women was sunk: men's retirement age was raised, but women's was left untouched. The Knesset's Labor and Welfare Committee voted unanimously in favor of a bill that would make it impossible to raise women's retirement age from 62, where it currently stands. Men's retirement age is 67 – although women outlive men by four years on average. The committee's decision was designed to forestall the implementation of then-Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz's decision to raise women's retirement age to 64.

MK Moshe Feiglin (Likud-Beytenu) established a Knesset caucus aimed at strengthening family values last year, but found himself facing the seemingly invincible women's lobby on his own, and has since toned down his involvement in this issue. 

While loath to extend women's compulsory IDF service, women's rights advocates have been very militant regarding specific rights of women who do serve. Major General Orna Barbivai, who heads the IDF's Personnel Directorate, has prepared new directives that critics say will make it more difficult for religious officers and soldiers to serve in the IDF without trespassing upon Judaism's basic precepts of modesty, as generally observed in the Orthodox sector.

The new directives reportedly include enlarging the quota for women in the Officers' Course at the Bahad 1 officer training facility, making it more difficult for religious soldiers to opt out of ceremonies involving women who sing on stage, and forcing officers to command over units that include women, if assigned to do so.

In addition, female sports instructors will be allowed to wear "immodest garb" – i.e., shorts and “spaghetti strap” undershirts – while training men.

The new directives are coming under fire from religious-Zionist and hareidi rabbis alike, who see them as breaching the rights of religious soldiers, and who are asking why they have not been consulted on the matter – particularly in light of recent calls to increase religious enlistment in the armed forces.

According to Rabbi Moshe Hager, who heads the Federation of Pre-Military Academies, unspecified “women's groups” are apparently behind Barbivai's move.