The fantasy of universal conscription
Eventually, there will be calls to eliminate universal conscription in favor of a voluntary or selective system: Not everyone will serve, and the army will choose who to draft, in both cases in return for a decent wage.
In view of the cheers of victory and the cries of despair after the High Court of Justice declared the Tal Law unconstitutional, we can assume that the main effect of the ruling will be to further entrench the inequality of Israel's draft, rather than eliminating it, and hasten the end of compulsory military service. It bears recalling that it was the High Court's 1998 ruling, which led to the Tal Law, that resulted in the systematization of draft inequality. In the course of a decade it solidified a web of rules that sanctified the exemption for yeshiva students, the results of which are cited in the court's recent ruling.
According to one scenario, predicted in Justice Asher Grunis' minority ruling, the Knesset will be asked to pass a bill that attempts in some way to correct the defects of the existing law. This will lead to additional High Court petitions from supporters of a broad-based draft. In the presumed absence of a scenario that does away with all exemptions for yeshiva students and enforces a general draft, it is worth examining another scenario. For example, a measure being advanced by wide swathes of the Knesset and the defense establishment that would make national service mandatory and raise the salaries of conscripts to ameliorate the inequalities, which will continue to exist.
The direct result of this move would be an artificial attempt to create a huge national-service establishment. It would likely include Israeli Arabs as well, since their de facto, comprehensive exemption from service also ostensibly violates the principles of the law (even if it satisfies other principles, as well as common sense ) and will presumably be challenged in the court by some conservative group at some stage.
National service would, naturally, be shorter than army service, and it would flood the market with forced workers - cheap labor, subsidized by the state and by parents, that to some extent would replace other cheap workers in the public service (and its subcontractors, like nongovernmental organizations ). Such an arrangement could not possibly work in the long run, and probably not in the short run either.
Since the military also wants to improve soldiers' wages, it is reasonable to assume that such a move would spark successful pressure to considerably reduce the duration of compulsory service in order to save money; soldiers in administrative positions would gradually have their service shortened to two years. That suits a cabinet resolution whose implementation was suspended after the 2006 Second Lebanese War (to comply with the recommendations of the committee headed by former Finance Ministry Director General Avi Ben-Bassat ).
All this will result in a new, unequal military hierarchy: Combat soldiers will serve for three years, partly in return for additional pay and partly, perhaps, on a volunteer basis. Soldiers in administrative positions will serve for two years, while individuals doing national service will serve for one year. This unequal hierarchy will have the protection of law. Obviously it can survive only briefly (if at all ), before new calls arise for an artificial equality. These calls will happen whether or not this envisioned hierarchy is created, because the Tal Law will be amended only marginally. But it can be assumed that this time the calls, including the economic ones, will be to eliminate universal conscription, including national service, in favor of a voluntary or selective system: Not everyone will serve, and the army will choose who to draft, in both cases in return for a decent wage.
Eliminating mandatory conscription will be the result of fully implementing the spirit of the High Court ruling. Those who want to introduce universal service would do well to consider such a scenario. They should recognize that the unintentional result could be to exclude even more people from the draft.
Prof. Yagil Levy is Aaron and Cecile Goldman Visiting Professor at Georgetown University, Washington DC.