Amir Rapaport’s Weekly Column: The IDF Reserve Service Array is Disintegrating

The current IDF model is collapsing, and until a new model is established, the army might be revealed as unprecedently weak in the case of a multi-front war. Plus: the military service of the ultra-orthodox, and which online influence campaigns to watch out for this coming week

Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi visiting the Tel Nof Air Force base. Photo: IDF Spokesperson’s Unit

The enormous crisis that has erupted within the IDF is much greater in reality than it is portrayed in the media. It is not a matter of right or left, truth A or truth B: the IDF reserve duty array is disintegrating, the entire IDF model is collapsing, and until a new model is established (which will take a long time), the army might be revealed as unprecedently weak in the case of a multi-front war. Our enemies know this and may choose to attack to their advantage.

Chief of Staff Herzl Halevi’s sad face throughout the week (ahead of the Tisha Be’av mourning day, commemorated today) serves to illustrate what he knows better than anyone. The heads of the intelligence units who wandered around the Knesset on Monday, in an unprecedented manner, before the vote on the reasonableness clause, were trying to convey the same message.

To understand the severity of the situation, it is important to realize that a country's strategic strength is measured by a combination of its military capabilities and civilian parameters such as international alliances, economic resilience, and social cohesion.

The security relations with the US are still very good (with a warning note from President Biden). Our economic strength far surpasses that of our enemies. However, the societal crisis is difficult to ignore.

Let us focus on the military aspect. It is not only a matter of technical capabilities such as aircraft, tanks, or ships (there has been no change in that regard), but primarily the ability to utilize them.

In this context, it is important not to disregard the warnings of former IDF ombudsman, Major General Yitzhak Brick, who has been repeating the same mantra for years, similar to the Roman politician Cato the Elder in his time about Carthage: the ground forces of the IDF are not ready.

Even if Brick exaggerated, the IDF has reached its 76th year laden with chronic illnesses, at their core a declining organizational memory and diminishing quality of the career army throughout the years. This should not be surprising given the change in social ethos and the transformation of conscripted soldiers into punching bags for the public.

In the past decade, many of our finest youth have been heading directly to high-tech after completing their mandatory service (or, at most, after a short career service for officers).

Nevertheless, until recently, the IDF possessed two assets that no other army in the world has: an efficient reserve army, and the ability to select the most brilliant and bravest among the 18-year-old combat soldiers.  This is a privilege that professional armies like in the US, do not have. This is the hidden force of the “people’s army.”

The IDF has been built over time as a people's army, also due to human resource constraints and "current needs." Its tasks over the years included settlement, immigration absorption, education, and even radio broadcasting, such as the controversial Galei Tzahal radio station, which still exists today.

The IDF is the reflection of Israeli society, for better or worse. Until now, mostly for the better. It was the wonderful melting pot of Israeli society, without cynicism. It has changed over the years, just like society, but no more than that.

As early as 2005, I published a series of articles in Maariv, which described an extended observation of the various IDF units. It was made clear to me that the role of the peripheral and religious soldiers in the command had already become more and more significant.

This is still the case today, but even well-established cities continue to inculcate significant service. Those who base their knowledge on Twitter and believe that the IDF is divided strictly between combat battalions serving only the "Mizrahim," the peripheries, and the religious nationalists, while the Air Force and elite intelligence units are manned only by Ashkenazis and Tel Avivians.

Anyone who served in the mandatory or reserve service knows this to be untrue. Even when Israeli society has fractured into its tribes, the IDF remains a natural preservative. But not anymore.

Dr. Ilan Efrati, a psychologist, sociologist, and former head of the Behavioral Sciences Department in the IDF, compared the current crisis to an old tape stuck in a movie during a conversation we held. At first, you just hear a bit of screeching, mainly about the continuous decline in the rate of conscripts, with an increase in those receiving exemptions due to their religious studies.

Despite the IDF's efforts to cope with the problem by increasing payments to mandatory soldiers and benefits to reservists, the crisis has overcome the solution. In recent months, against the backdrop of legislation and protest, the tape sounded like it was running at a frenzied speed. This week, the tape got stuck. The threats have become actions. The IDF can try to rewind and fix the tape, but it will never be the same army again. In the long run, the IDF needs a new service model, for the regular and reserves, not just for the Air Force. In the short term, the IDF is hoping that “it will be ok.” The “how” is unclear.

Like in previous weeks, this week’s focus was on counting the pilots who threatened not to volunteer and those who have already acted on their threat. This is truly the most urgent and burning crisis, due to the enormous importance of reservists in the various squadrons and the constant need to fly to maintain readiness.

But the crisis is rapidly spreading throughout the IDF, undermining morale and commitment. Soon, it will also affect the motivation of the conscripts from the August class, which is about to begin.

From a broader perspective, IDF intelligence is convinced that the crisis affects the deterrence against our enemies. In the coming days, relevant assessments on this will be presented to the cabinet ministers. It is a very reasonable scenario now: Hezbollah, Hamas, and Iran are coordinating their positions. They will seek to embarrass Israel without crossing the border and causing a full-scale war, maybe similar to the rocket fire toward northern communities during the peak of the previous protest in March. Perhaps even more than that. We'll see.

Putting the fear of God in the IDF

This week, during this problematic timing, the bill for absolute exemption from military service for the ultra-orthodox was submitted. This is a problematic move, which is opposed to the wishes of many young Haredim who want to enlist.

Here's another firsthand account: In 1999, I was in a secret meeting at the home of Brigadier General Yehuda Duvdevani, who was then the head of the National-Social Branch in the Ministry of Defense. We were joined by three Haredi youths who laid the groundwork for the establishment of the Haredi Nahal (now known as Netzah Yehuda Battalion), with the support of many rabbis.

I kept the secret for a year, as I promised Duvdevani I would, and then exposed the establishment of Nahal Haredi in Yediot Ahronot.

In hindsight, Nahal Haredi was never a resonating success, but the paths of ultra-orthodox to serve in special units of the Air Force and the Intelligence Corps certainly have been. The ultra-orthodox serving in these units made a significant contribution to the IDF, and many of them also integrated into the civilian workforce after they were discharged.

Over the years, the number of Haredi enlistees has increased year by year, until the trend reversed in the middle of the past decade with the cancellation of the Tal Law.

Coercion will not help here. It is the same as the pilots’ volunteer service – the more pressure there is on Haredi conscription, the harder it will be to recruit them. The IDF does not really rely on large numbers of recruits each year (there is no operational need for this anyway). The issue is more relevant to sharing the burden within Israeli society than it is to security.

On love and influence

Our enemies have also been taking part in the current social chaos. Last week, Nadav Eyal published in Yedioth Ahronoth that Israel turned to Russia with a request to refrain from influencing activities. A similar request could not be made to Iran, which operates through avatars and "trolls" in order to deepen the rift in Israeli society. Not that we haven’t been deepening the rift on our own.

The avatars are fictional characters built over the years, with a range of posts and real friends in their database. They spread false or inciting information. The trolls are impersonators as well, focusing on trolling –  tearing up discussions, slandering others, and bombarding them with idle messages.

In the coming week, special caution is required on the internet, according to a warning published by the Privacy Protection Authority and the National Cyber Directorate, due to Tu B'Av – the Jewish “day of love”.

Both bodies warn against websites pretending to be shopping sites, exploiting romantic sentiments and attempting to steal financial and personal information, or disrupting dating sites and carrying out extortion attacks that use harmful files or links containing the related date name.

In the US, for example, the GandCrab threat group exploited Valentine's Day in February to distribute a file called "Love Letter,” which contained harmful ransomware. Another method observed is sending messages to profiles on social networks with the text "I saw your profile, and I'm interested in you” and attaching personal photo files that contain malicious software.

Considering this, it is likely that hackers will try to exploit Tu B'Av to carry out similar attacks in Israel. Caution is advised.

What you see from the Gulf

Against the backdrop of the turmoil in Israel, it seems that the greatest achievement from Benjamin Netanyahu's perspective, establishing official relations with Saudi Arabia, is also becoming more distant.

However, a visit to the Gulf last week gave me the impression that the judicial issue in Israel is not related to the Saudi one. Even if U.S. President Biden is angry with Netanyahu, the Saudi whip is an unlikely one for him to use.

Examining the situation from the Gulf, it seems that Biden also needs an achievement with Saudi Arabia, as much as Netanyahu does. The problem is that the all-powerful Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), doesn’t really care about him. Since the major crisis after the murder of Saudi journalist Khashoggi, MBS has been flirting in China while allowing Biden to chase him.

Moreover, Saudi Arabia is not the same as the relatively-modern UAE. The Saudi royal family maintains a complex relationship with religious institutions, and an official agreement with Israel might face more opposition.

From our point of view, Israel-Saudi relations are already almost at the level of full normalization, similar to what was achieved with the UAE by 2019. Trade is flourishing, but there are no direct flights or embassies. Is it worth paying the price that Saudi Arabia demands - U.S. approval for nuclear reactors for electricity and the purchase of F-35 fighter jets? Not sure.

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