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The Israel Defense Forces chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, has proposed requiring all young Israelis to do national service, in order to expand the reservoir of candidates for induction into the army. In a lecture at a conference for high school principals, which Anshel Pfeffer reported on in yesterday's Haaretz, Ashkenazi posed a challenge to the state's political leadership by calling for "building new models of service."

The chief of staff's initiative stems from his recognition of Israel's changing demographics: The ultra-Orthodox and Arab communities, neither of which serve in the army, are growing, while the groups that do serve - the secular, religious-Zionist and Druze - are shrinking in proportion to the total population. About half of all first-graders today are either Arab or Haredi, and in the absence of mass immigration, it is clear that the IDF will have trouble filling its ranks with new recruits if the existing exemptions remain in force. "In another decade or two, we will face a reality in which perhaps only a minority will be drafted into the IDF," Ashkenazi warned.

The chief of staff deserves praise for his willingness to stare this societal reality in the face; until now, the army has tried to obscure it via periodic reports about a "rise in draftees' motivation" and a well-publicized battle against "draft-dodgers from north Tel Aviv." For fear of causing trouble for politicians, the army has preferred not to assail the Haredi community's mass draft-dodging, nor has it made an effort to recruit Arabs. Local initiatives by individual officers, like the "Blue Dawn" project to recruit Haredim as air force technicians, have indeed been relatively successful, but they have not been translated into a comprehensive policy.

Widening the circle of those who contribute to the state via military or civilian service is of great importance to maintaining Israel's social cohesion, and slowing the nation's disintegration into warring, separatist tribes. Service would entitle young Arabs and Haredim to economic benefits currently only given to soldiers and would connect them to social networks that would make it easier for them to find jobs. And nothing is more important than this: Unless Haredim and Arabs are integrated into the labor market, Israel's economy will shrink and ultimately collapse.

Ehud Olmert's government made an effort to implement the recommendations of the Ivri Committee which, in 2005, proposed a model for voluntary civilian national service. The agency in charge of the program was transferred to the Prime Minister's Office, and its public relations material stressed that it encouraged service within the volunteer's own community and was not in any way connected to the army. Those who joined were promised the same benefits that demobilized soldiers receive.

But to date, only a few hundred people have volunteered, and the project has not affected real change in either Haredi or Arab society. Arab community leaders fear that civilian service will ultimately lead to forcible induction into the army, and they justly complain about long years of discrimination. The Haredim, meanwhile, prefer to have their young men study in yeshivas.

The model that the chief of staff proposed - compulsory national service, with the IDF choosing those who it wants to draft and the rest serving in civilian programs - would be difficult to implement under existing circumstances, given the growing distrust between Arabs and the Jewish establishment as well as between Haredi and secular Jews. But his idea ought to spark a dialogue between the state and the separatist communities, with the goal of formulating an arrangement that would encourage their integration into mainstream society and ensure both the state's future security and economic growth.