(photo credit: AP [file])
First-Sergeant Hananel Megged hung up his uniform, returned his rifle and went back to his yeshiva this week, putting an end to the latest episode in the growing rift between the IDF and the national religious sector. Megged's refusal to shake Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Dan Halutz's hand at an Independence Day ceremony earlier this month was yet another spark in the fiery relations between the army and members of the religious community that was ignited during disengagement.
Officers said this week that it was not so much Megged's act in itself that shocked them, but rather its context: a ceremony awarding the outstanding soldier a citation of excellence from the president and Halutz. In addition, they said, the incident indicated that time hadn't healed the wounds of withdrawal.
In the immediate aftermath of the Gaza pullout, things seemed to be getting back to normal. Motivation among religious soldiers in general - and in combat units in particular - remained at its previously high level, as did the percentage of religious cadets in Officer's Training Course (currently at 50%).
Since the Six Day War, the religious-Zionist community has encouraged its children to serve in the most elite units of the military. Indeed, they began to replace the kibbutz youth, who up until then had dominated the prestigious combat units and held the highest ranks.
"1967 was the turning point for the religious camp and its relationship with the army," says historian Ze'ev Tzahor, president of Sapir College. "The redemption of the territories was seen as another step in religious redemption, with all the messianic meaning behind it. The religious camp began to view the IDF as an emissary of God and then began to send its children to combat units."
Disengagement changed all that, claims Tzahor. Instead of outstanding soldiers such as Megged moving up in the ranks and become future military leaders, he says, some are joining the likes of Avi Bieber - the first soldier to refuse military orders in protest of disengagement - and becoming heroes in far-right circles.
Fear that this is a growing phenomenon has the IDF extremely worried - particularly in the backdrop of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's scheduled visit to Washington this weekend to present the convergence plan, which involves withdrawing from most of the West Bank. If the violent clashes during the evacuation of the outpost Amona in February indicate anything, it's that the army will have its work cut out for itself when it has to perform further, more massive pullouts.
Indeed, the defense establishment is beginning to ponder the question of how to prepare for that very task.
DAYS AFTER the violence at Amona, Halutz appointed Brig.-Gen. Tal Russo to rebuild the broken bridge between the IDF and the national religious camp. Since then, Russo has held dozens of meetings with settler leaders, rabbis and religious youth to persuade them to maintain their motivation to serve in the military and to remain loyal to the state. But his findings, recently presented to the General Staff, paint a gloomy picture.
Another move on the part of the army to mend the rift is the appointment of Rabbi Avichai Ronsky - from the settlement of Itamar - to the post of IDF chief rabbi. The Israel Police, too, is making such an effort, and recently interviewed Yosef Elnekaveh - former rabbi of the Gush Katif Regional Council - for the job of chief rabbi.
Convergence, however - warns Tzahor - may ultimately sever all ties between the military and the national religious camp.
Whether or not this warning materializes, defense officials are confident that the army will succeed in implementing the pullout. "There is no such thing as a mission impossible," one official said this week.
ACCORDING TO Menahem Landau - former head of the Jewish Department of the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) - the Right is aware that the only realistic path to preventing convergence lies within the corridors of the Knesset. "There is less support for violence, and the current idea is to fight things inside the political system," says Landau, who retired four years ago.
Nevertheless, he says, the Agency needs to be prepared for violence from the extremist elements among the settlers resisting convergence, and to take preemptive measures against it.
According to one top Shin Bet official, the Agency has been discussing plans to round up such extremists prior to the West Bank pullout. "We will need to take them out of the game way before the process even begins," he said. He pointed in particular to some residents of the settlements surrounding Nablus - Yitzhar, Elon Moreh, Tapuach and Itamar - who, he said, make up the "tough core" of the West Bank and will pose the greatest challenge for the evacuating forces."