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Israelis Still Confident in the Military Despite Year of Headaches and Scandal

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Soldiers in the mixed-gender Caracal Batallion, Yokne'am, 2016.
Soldiers in the mixed-gender Caracal Batallion, Yokne'am, 2016. Credit: Jack Guez / AFP

The annual Israeli Democracy Index, which the Israel Democracy Institute published Tuesday, has some good news for the Israel Defense Forces. After a particularly tense year in the army’s relations with broader society, including the trial and (rejected) amnesty request of soldier Elor Azaria and an intense debate about women serving as combat soldiers, 81 percent of Israelis (and 88 percent of Jewish Israelis) still trust the IDF.

That’s down just two percentage points from last year. So the army remains the most trusted Israeli institution, far ahead of even the president and the Supreme Court, not to mention the police, the Knesset and the Chief Rabbinate.

But a closer look shows that among rightist voters, trust in all state institutions has dropped steeply, and while the loss of faith in the army has been more moderate, it’s still significant. It’s reminiscent of what happened among religious Zionists following the 2005 disengagement from Gaza, a rift healed only with great mutual effort, aided by the Second Lebanon War that erupted a year later.

For all its popularity among the public, the IDF still relies on high rates of enlistment in combat units among those same rightists who are increasingly skeptical of the General Staff’s judgment, whether on rules of engagement in the territories or on getting more women to do combat service (including many religious women, who volunteer despite their eligibility for draft exemptions).

Against this background, the new version of the mixed-gender service order approved by Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot this week is interesting. This updated version of the order issued in October 2016 follows an extensive dialogue with both rabbinic organizations and the Israel Women’s Network. But the new version, like the old, seems likely to leave both groups unhappy.

The rabbis obtained one concession: Religious career officers (both commissioned and noncommissioned) will now be able to avoid serving in mixed-gender combat units. But the final decision will still be up to the army, not the officer. In other words, the army stuck to its belief that whereas conscripts’ requests to avoid mixed-gender units must be honored, career officers serve voluntarily and so have greater obligations. This is the main provision that the rabbis unsuccessfully tried cancel.

17-year debate

For now, the issue appears purely theoretical. The army says that over the past year, not one career officer has asked not to serve in a mixed-gender unit, and three of the eight mixed-gender combat battalions are currently commanded by religious officers. They also have some religious company commanders.

Thus this long dispute – the first version of the order was issued 17 years ago – seems to be a case of much ado about (almost) nothing. Perhaps the most important news about the latest version is that the IDF sees it as ending the discussion, having already invested enormous energy in it for too long.

Also, last week the IDF published statistics about enlistment rates and motivation for combat service. The data drew attention mainly for the ongoing decline in willingness to join combat units, which is apparently at its lowest since the end of the Second Lebanon War.

But the IDF has obscured the scale of the problem a bit by changing the way it measures such willingness. Even if the new method – which is based on the conscript’s motivation when he enlists rather on questionnaires filled out much earlier – is more accurate, the intentional result has been to obscure the severity of the trend Haaretz reported on back in January.

The problem isn’t only the totals, but also their segmentation. Soldiers whom the army considers the highest-quality raw material have been steadily switching into prestigious but safer jobs, including intelligence, cyberwar, drone operations and air defense. Fewer high-quality soldiers in combat units means fewer potential high-quality officers, and eventually even a possible decline in the quality of the senior command, which has always come from the ranks of combat units.

The army’s main explanation for the decline is the relatively calm security situation in recent years. After a war, new recruits are always more motivated to join combat units because they perceive a real threat. When the situation is calmer, bearing the burden of combat service seems less important. And among those who are interested, the Border Police – who have been on the front lines against stabbing attacks but also offer much more comfortable service conditions – have become a more attractive option.

The new army model

Another long-term process, however, received less media attention last week. In five years, population growth will confront the IDF with a new problem: a significant surplus of conscripts, and not necessarily high-quality, highly motivated ones. The army currently considers a serious problem the fact that compulsory service for men is being cut by four months and possibly by another two months in two years. But in the long run, these cuts may help the IDF offload the soldiers it needs less.

Yet a plethora of superfluous soldiers will present a new challenge to the model of the people’s army, to which the high command still swears allegiance. The army may respond by instituting wildly varying terms of service for different jobs. Another possibility is to expand alternatives like civilian service.

“The model of compulsory service has been in systematic decline because of deep social forces that are stronger than the army and are eroding the legitimacy of sacrificing in the IDF,” said Prof. Yagil Levy, a scholar specializing in the IDF who was one of the first to identify many of the trends now clearly evident.

“It has taken many years for the army to recognize that there are motivation problems and to begin dealing with them,” he told Haaretz. “Now is the time to think about an alternative model.”

Levy argues that the “people’s army” model will ultimately become incompatible with conscription. There will be no choice but to switch to a more selective system, he said, in which “the state drafts a percentage of the population that the Knesset determines according to the army’s needs, and service will be shortened, but not dramatically.”

“Service terms for women and men will be equalized,” he added. “The criteria for exemption will be official and transparent, and they will be determined by personal fitness – education, ethics, health, motivation – and by culture-group fitness, which will exempt the ultra-Orthodox, religious women, Arabs and those whose conscience prevents them from serving.”

This, Levy said, will let the state “regain the initiative” by eliminating its preoccupation with falling enlistment rates, “and will also end the uproar over drafting the ultra-Orthodox.”

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