The picture is as clouded as it gets. Day after day, the public hears of letters, announcements and petitions signaling that the IDF reserves are falling apart or have already fallen apart as a casualty in the ongoing battle over the government’s proposed judicial overhaul. There is no question that some reservists have skipped their duty or are close to it due to the judicial overhaul issue.
At the same time, the IDF, at least publicly, and the government continue to maintain that there is no crisis and that the IDF reservist numbers have either stayed solid or even risen in some units. The Jerusalem Post has also heard directly about stable reservist numbers and some angst from reservists who are working hard and showing up only to read news stories during their breaks about how they are not there.
And if the government pauses or crosses the line with the judicial overhaul, all of the existing data could be instantly scrambled.
How does one judge which side is accurate?
One way is with numbers.
A report last week by Haaretz, based on interviews with certain field commanders, found that only 57% of IDF paratrooper reservists were showing up for duty.
According to that report, this represented a massive drop of more than 30% from a standard show-up rate of close to 90%. And whatever the drop actually is, a mere 57% show-up rate would seem to be a big problem.
The IDF then presented alternate data, though part of what was interesting was that some of it mirrored the Haaretz report, but with a different context and meaning.
In the IDF data, the units that overlapped those paratrooper units on which Haaretz had reported had show-up rates of 59%, 69% and 72%, with an overall average this month of 67%.
These numbers may be somewhat higher than the Haaretz numbers, but would still seem to be very worrying.
Except that the IDF said the standard previous show-up rate was not 90% or anywhere near that level.
Rather, the IDF said that compared to this month, the last major training in August 2022 had an average rate of 61% and that some of the units had gone up a small amount, with the worst drop being a paratrooper unit drop from 67% to 59%.
The bottom line then from the IDF’s standpoint is that IDF reservist numbers in elite units are going up or down primarily in single digits.
How in the world did they get so low already in August 2022, when today’s opposition was still running the government?
Going beyond the statistics from inside the IDF, the Post understands that the numbers in some of the relevant units until recent years were closer to 80%, but that the coronavirus era and the growing dynamic of IDF reserve duty not being viewed as normative had already dragged the numbers much lower.
In mid-January, the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security (JISS) held a conference about the reserves being in crisis, more than a month before the proposed judicial overhaul had seriously started to impact conversations about the IDF.
A JISS survey showed deep discontent in the reserves dating back years, with 82% unhappy with their level of pay, and 66% feeling that society and their families see them as “friers” (suckers) for continuing to do reserve duty.
Despite all these trends, the Post understands that IDF officials dealing with the reserve duty issue believe the regular dialogue they are holding with their units has preserved sufficient numbers and readiness to protect the country.
They say IDF WhatsApp groups show a lot of spirited discussion about the judicial overhaul, but have not generally gone in the direction of striking from showing up for reserve duty.
The way these officials would describe the situation would be that they know that a number of their reservist troops are attending protests, and they are fine with this and with hearing the troops’ disappointment in the current government.
However, they believe their openness to their troops expressing themselves on these issues has succeeded in keeping the troops showing up for duty. Showing up for duty is not only a commitment to the country, but the Post understands it is also about commitment to the specific unit, where many of those serving may have already been comrades in arms for an extended period.
According to this view, putting politics on the side away from IDF issues is not just about a general principle of avoiding divisive issues.
Rather, even if senior IDF officials might be against the judicial overhaul, they would see it in grave, clear-eyed and even dark terms – that their role is to be the last group to remain at their posts because Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas and other enemies are otherwise ready to try to destroy Israel, liberal democracy or not.
Maybe the best way to judge the situation is with the public moves by just-fired Defense Minister Yoav Gallant. On Saturday night, he warned of an impending crisis in the reserves. This message was said even more explicitly by a senior defense official to reporters on Sunday. Most importantly, Gallant was ready to be fired to make the point – he thought the crisis was that stark.
All of this means that wherever the situation is by a snapshot of the current moment (maybe the IDF is right that for the moment things are stable), if the government crosses the line by passing the judicial overhaul this week, Gallant, who has all the numbers, believes that a disaster would be just over the horizon.
All of the major global banks that have cratered in recent weeks looked solid from the outside until moments before they crashed, but insiders knew how dire the situation was starting to become.
So the next days and weeks will likely be decisive regarding the future of the IDF reserves. The last thing to keep in mind is that this entire crisis has further exposed the need to reform the reserves so that whoever is serving is happier or better paid for their service. Even after the crisis is resolved one way or another, there will be a need to finally push for fixing long-standing issues regarding the treatment of reservists.