The IDF Must Remain an Army of Conscripts, for Now

Doing away with the people's army and making the IDF into a professional force will lead to a critical deterioration in its performance.

Following the failure of the Plesner Committee, Haaretz editor-in-chief Aluf Benn this week presented a simple solution for the draft crisis. The concept of a people's army is a fiction, Benn wrote in his blog. The IDF's role as a melting pot has ended, and it has become a focal point for quarrels between the tribes that constitute Israeli society.

Instead of continuing to lie to the public about shouldering an equal burden, conscription should be abolished, he wrote. The IDF will become a professional army that will draft only young people who want to serve and it will have to compete with other employers for quality personnel.

Benn is right in his analysis of the present situation. But the solution he proposes is, I believe, totally wrongheaded. He is not taking into account the potential price involved. When a commercial firm decides to invest in a certain field, such as a new technology on an old platform, it takes a calculated risk, which might be essential in the circumstances. But it is highly doubtful whether Israel, given its security and political situation, can afford the same privilege.

In the light of a possible full-scale war which is liable to erupt in the event of an attack on Iran, and a long list of troubles on the borders, the IDF continues to need two things: a relatively large mass of combat troops and a large number of trained and educated soldiers in the air force, intelligence and technological professions.

To fill essential posts - pilots, Unit 8200 personnel in Military Intelligence and officers in the combat units, among others - the army continues to rely on what it terms the "quality groups" in the population, for which the parameters are a reasonable economic situation at home and and good predraft level of education.

The American armed forces are paying a harsh price in terms of the quality of their performance, from Vietnam to Iraq, because of their draft method - and they have a population of 300 million to choose from. The Israeli choice is tiny by comparison. What if Benn is wrong, and within a few years the potential recruits to Unit 8200 will instead prefer the short track to high tech via university?

When the option of evading service becomes a legitimate choice, with a "kosher seal" from the state, the result is liable to be a critical deterioration in the army's performance. I don't think Israel is in a position to take that risk.

I am not fond of the concept of the people's army, and a look at the IDF from the bottom up easily exposes the mechanisms of self-deception involved in preserving that image. It's not just the Haredim and the Arabs who do not serve. Even the more well-off, established veteran segments of Israeli society have also reduced their service, certainly in the combat units.

Two years ago, I asked the commander of a brigade in the conscript army if he had any soldiers from Tel Aviv. Very few, he replied, and they live "south of the Dolphinarium line" (referring to lower-class areas in the city).

This process will only be aggravated if compulsory service is canceled. The IDF will need to rely, even more than it does now, on young national-religious people (who will continue to serve for ideological and political reasons) and on members of ethnic groups who will continue to view army service as a springboard to enter Israeli society: Druze, Bedouin, immigrants from Ethiopia. It won't be long before we have an army consisting of disgruntled militias.

The introduction of the professional model will also signal the absolute end of the reserves. For years, reservists have acted as a sane, restraining civilian "brake" within the IDF: to curb war crimes against civilian populations and to contain dangerous army adventurism. (A case in point: the siege of Beirut in 1982, followed by the withdrawal to South Lebanon three years later. ) There will be only one political stance in the new homogeneous army that will come into being, without reservists, without leftists. You won't hear Breaking the Silence (veteran soldiers who highlight the reality of life in the territories ) there.

And here is another argument from the left. For years, the newspaper you are now reading has called consistently for the evacuation of the settlements. In 2010, I presented data showing that the proportion of religiously observant cadets in courses for infantry officers had risen from 2 percent to 30 percent within 17 years.

I wrote an article titled "While you were sleeping." I thought that the secular left had fallen asleep on its watch. The empty rows it left in the combat units were filled by others. Even those who think there will be no choice but to carry out a massive evacuation of settlements, I argued, have to know that it will be very difficult to pull that off after the disengagement from the Gaza Strip.

Last year, new data were published. The proportion of religiously observant soldiers in courses for infantry officers now stands at 42 percent. It seems that the new model being proposed here will effectively bury the possibility of evacuating the settlements, unless of course we see a mass enlistment by Haaretz columnists.

Benn also fails to address another issue, which I think is critical. The melting pot may no longer be relevant (even the IDF now talks about a "multicultural approach" in absorbing soldiers), but the army remains a critical rite of passage, at least for Israeli males. This holds true both for your place in the society after army service - the question of if and where you served is still significant - and for the way in which you comprehend society.

The room at boot camp and the tent at Tze'elim military base are important not only for the Ethiopian from Netanya but also the veteran Ashkenazi from Ramat Aviv.

A career trajectory that starts in Unit 8200 or in Army Radio, and lands confidently at a start-up in Ramat Hahayal or Channel 10 News, provides a very narrow angle of observation on Israeli society. (The pernicious effect of Army Radio in regard to the one-dimensionality of the local media merits a doctoral dissertation, not a column in the weekend paper.) This trend will become more extreme if we prevent the encounter almost completely by canceling compulsory service.

Compulsory military service - with the appalling boredom of long stretches of it; the problematic maintenance it supplies for the engine of occupation; the considerable risk it involves for the combat soldiers' lives - remains the thin thread, almost the last, which - with great difficulty - connects Tel Aviv to everything that is happening across the banks of the Yarkon River. It sometimes feels that, without it, the city is liable to detach and float across the sea westward, like the Iberian Peninsula in Jose Saramago's novel "The Stone Raft."

Much needs to be changed in the IDF, even before the Haredim are subjected to the draft. Surplus jobs in the bloated rear headquarters need to be cut. There should long have been, as then MK Haim Ramon suggested to the Personnel Directorate in 2004, differential service in which soldiers in less vital posts will have their compulsory service shortened and a fitting salary paid to combat soldiers from their third year in the army. But the total abolition of conscription, in the thought of "letting the market do the job," is a mistaken idea at this time.