Internal IDF Report: Army Must Prepare to Cancel Mandatory Draft

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New IDF recruits look toward the Mediterranean Sea during their basic training, in Tel Aviv, April 13, 2014.Credit: AP

An internal document from the Israel Defense Forces’ behavioral science center suggests that the army prepare for discontinuing the mandatory draft and introducing an all-volunteer model, in the wake of increasing public debate of the subject. “The IDF must plan for this scenario based on similar scenarios regarding other armies. Even if in the Israeli case the changes will be different from those in other countries, it’s difficult to imagine that the outcomes that have been observed in these nations can be completely avoided.”

The report was written by Yuval Benziman, a researcher who specializes in the relationship between the IDF and Israeli society, at the behest of the IDF’s behavioral science center. Haaretz obtained a copy of the document, which was published in January and is not classified. A discussion of Benziman’s findings took place at an IDF Personnel Directorate event in September marking the retirement of Maj. Gen. Orna Barbivai, who had commanded the personnel directorate. Attended by numerous high-ranking officers from the directorate, the discussion was entitled “the shift from compulsory service to a volunteer, professional army – comparative perspectives on foreign armies.”

The head of the behavioral science center, Col. Roni Tamir, who presented Benziman’s findings at the meeting, said there were “signs indicating” the possibility for a real change in the Israeli draft model, and that the IDF should prepare for such a scenario and learn from the experience accumulated by other Western armies in that regard. The new head of the IDF Personnel Directorate, Maj. Gen. Hagi Topolansky recently held a workshop for the directorate, attended by experts from outside of the IDF, to discuss possible developments. There is no evidence, however, that the IDF will attempt to push for such a change on its own.

Benziman writes “the trend of cancelling mandatory draft in numerous states can be seen in recent decades. Currently, only six nations in the European bloc have a compulsory draft. Most states with a compulsory draft are in Asia or Africa. In many of them, an alternative to military service is offered, and the draft is not completely enforced.” Benziman’s findings were based on research and analysis of trends in the military models of various countries, focusing on transitions from compulsory to voluntary models.

According to Benziman, the goal of the research is “to provide commanders and professionals knowledge about processes that have occurred throughout the world as well as tools to understand and analyze such complex (and sometimes contradictory) processes occurring in recent years within the IDF and its draft offices.” The comparative study on various nations shows that mostly, the formal switch from mandatory to voluntary draft is characterized by slow, gradual changes and complex processes, due to the many various parties affected by the change. In effect, however, comprehensive changes are made to the recruitment process as well as general service arrangements before any kind of official decision is made. “This way, the phase of transitioning from the compulsory and voluntary model take shape through various local changes and processes, unrelated to a comprehensive change in the military model.”

Because of the public’s high level of involvement in the process, the transition often occurs informally, by way of action from groups and individuals outside of the establishment. “This kind of action,” writes Benziman, “is expressed in public discourse against the mandatory draft, in criticism and feelings of frustration over the gaps between the formal mandatory draft and the extent to which it is enforced in practice, as well as demands to create special draft processes, and more. Intermediate processes occur until a formal policy for changing the draft model is formed. These intermediate processes are important for two main reasons. First, despite the fact that they are sometimes perceived to be reinforcing the existing compulsory draft model, they are actually part of the transition from the compulsory to the voluntary model. Second, these intermediate processes sometimes become permanent and can influence the model that will ultimately take shape, as well as various aspects of the army’s relationship with the public.”

Benziman adds that “the research shows that it is impossible to examine or measure the transition exclusively in parameters of formal, systemic decisions, plans, or policies. The transition between draft models and service structures is expressed in processes that are not preplanned, and are not necessarily connected to a comprehensive change. The research emphasizes the importance of perceived threats in changes to the military model as a significant factor that can lead a nation to do away with a mandatory draft.” Thus, many nations in Europe abolished their mandatory draft after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the end of the Cold War.

The document also lists many other significant factors tied to abolishing the mandatory draft model. Many of them are relevant to the Israeli situation as well. According to Benziman, one factor is a large gap between the formal mandatory draft, and the small, actual draft percentages, which “create a feeling of injustice and inequality.” Benziman also lists deterioration of the army’s status in society, a reduction in willingness to serve, public demands to allocate more funds in other areas such as welfare, infrastructure and education as opposed to the military, perceptions that a volunteer army would be better handle new age military objectives (for many states, this means fighting global terror and sending peacekeeping forces abroad).

Benziman also criticizes what he calls “dichotomous thinking that characterizes discourse on the military model. Mostly this thinking includes only two possible models – a compulsory draft, or a paid, professional army. The research shows that this perception is constrictive and misleading,” and that there is a wide range of solutions between the two, like granting more options for civilian service, shorter compulsory service consisting only of basic training, or creating voluntary draft tracks with salaries that would reduce the need for compulsory draft, as well as selective enforcement of the mandatory draft, or implementing a requirement to register with the army.

The document also indicates the challenges facing armies that make the switch: a drastic decrease in manpower, alongside changes in draftee profiles (more impoverished draftees as well as more women), lessened ability to predict future manpower, fluctuations in the number of draftees based on outside factors like perceived threat, economic situation, as well as the tendency to refrain from using force due to difficulties in achieving the public’s approval.

According to Benziman, “based on processes studied in foreign armies, it can be said that in many ways, Israel and the IDF are currently in the process of changing from a mandatory draft model to an alternative one. The perceived threat is still dominant, making the chances of changing to a voluntary military model in the near future very slim, but the processes currently underway in Israel are similar to scenarios faced by other armies throughout the world, that eventually led to abolishing the mandatory draft.”

Benziman mentions various specialized mandatory service tracks for various minorities (Nahal Haredi, the Druze battalion and the Bedouin battalion, among others) and the fact that in terms of reserves, the army already selectively chooses soldiers. Benziman points out that public discourse on draft inequality is on the rise, and the public is demanding that defense funding be diverted to other objectives, and notes that the army’s status in society has changed for the worse in recent decades.

Benziman concludes: “from here, it’s not impossible that discussions on the need for switching to a voluntary draft will get louder in the coming years, and ultimately lead to comprehensive change. The IDF must plan for this scenario based on similar scenarios regarding other militaries. Even if in the Israeli case the changes are different than the changes in nations throughout the world, it’s hard to imagine that the results can be completely sidelined. The need to prepare for the transitional period, a drastic change in manpower, new perceptions on the use of force, the need to deal with a fluctuating number of draftees based on factors out of the army’s control, as well as difficulties in estimating budget cuts — the IDF could face all of these things, and thus it must prepare itself in advance.

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