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Israeli army no longer sees gays as security risk

The Israeli army, regarded by some Americans as a model worth studying in the debate over homosexuals in the military, has issued new orders banning discrimination against gay men and lesbians in recruiting and in assignment to sensitive security positions.

The orders drop a previous requirement that soldiers undergo psychological evaluation if they are found to be homosexuals or declare that fact openly.

While such testing is not necessarily abandoned in all instances, the new rules eliminate a mandatory procedure that Israeli homosexuals say has generally worked against them.

Reuven Gal, a former chief psychologist for the army, has acknowledged that known homosexuals were likely to be kept out of intelligence work and certain combat units.

"They radically change many things," professor Uzi Even, chairman of the chemistry department at Tel Aviv University, said of the new orders.

Even, who did top-secret military research for many years, helped stir debate on homosexuals and the army when he appeared at a parliamentary hearing in February and told how he was classified as a security risk after openly declaring his homosexuality 10 years ago. As a consequence, his security clearance was canceled and he was stripped of his rank.

In recent months, he has worked with senior army officers, government officials and gay rights advocates to write the new rules that were announced in a brief army statement on Thursday night.

"We didn't achieve everything we wanted, but we got enough," Even said. "You cannot, with a stroke of a pen, eliminate attitudes that have been entrenched for many years."

Arguably the one common denominator in a fractious country, the Israeli army has not asked conscripts about their sexual orientation since at least the 1970s. Moreover, openly gay soldiers are not drummed out of the service.

With most Israeli men and women drafted at age 18, and with annual reserve duty for men continuing into middle age, the exclusion of an entire group on the basis of sexual orientation would be equivalent, many agree, to declaring it no longer a part of society.

In the continuing dispute in the United States on this issue, Israel has been held up by many as an example of tolerance and openness. A study group commissioned by Congress came to Israel in late April to examine its policies.

"The interest in Israel is obviously because it's a country whose armed forces have seen plenty of combat," a U.S. official said.

But while officially there is no discrimination, Israeli homosexuals say they nonetheless feel daily pressures to hide their orientation, both on active duty and in the reserves.

After the February hearing in Parliament, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, a former army chief of staff who is also defense minister, ordered that the army's practices be re-examined. The resulting new regulations, which took effect last week, affirm "the liberal approach to the service of homosexuals" that an army spokesman asserted was already in effect.

But the rules now go further than in the past to declare that "there is no limit on the induction of homosexuals to the army, and their induction is according to the criteria that apply to all candidates to the army."

The army statement added: "The order also says there is no automatic restriction on the service of homosexuals in special jobs, and the case of each candidate for a classified job will be checked."

According to officers, it means that openly homosexual soldiers still would have to undergo a security clearance, but then so would everyone else.

Yael Dayan, a member of Parliament who has been an outspoken advocate of gay rights, said of the new orders: "In world terms, they're revolutionary."