Peretz comes to the rescue of hesder

An IDF decision to prevent hesder soldiers from serving in the Golani and Paratrooper brigades is being put on hold, Defense Minister Amir Peretz said Monday. Last week, OC Human Resources Maj.-Gen. Elazar Stern said hesder soldiers would no longer serve in those brigades. The five-year hesder (arrangement) program allows religious soldiers to combine yeshiva studies with 18 months of military service, instead of the mandatory three years. Approximately 1,200 hesder soldiers serve in the IDF annually, most of them in combat units. Stern's decision was criticized by religious Zionist organizations in the Diaspora. The Union of Orthodox Synagogues, World Mizrahi, the National Council of Young Israel and the Religious Zionists of America wrote to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Peretz and Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi to express their concern. On Monday, Peretz told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee he had decided to delay Stern's decision. "I will need to take time to review the issue before allowing it to proceed," he said. The final decision might be made by either MK Ami Ayalon or Ehud Barak, one of whom will become Peretz's successor as Labor Party chairman and most likely the next defense minister. Last week, Stern sent a letter to 5,000 hesder students and soldiers explaining his decision. All soldiers, he wrote, were placed in units according to the IDF's needs. Stern said the IDF viewed the hesder program as an essential component of the military and a source of quality soldiers. But its numbers had grown by 20 percent in recent years, he said, indicating that it was being taken advantage of. "My intention, and this has already been accomplished in a number of units, is not to disperse but to integrate the hesder soldiers," Stern wrote. "I think that shared service encourages dialogue and maintains a more Jewish and Israeli atmosphere, and one that is stronger and more united."