Analysis |

It's High Time for Israel to Reduce the Period of Compulsory Army Service

While of value to the army and society, the 'people's army' ethos may be too expensive to hang onto due to economic realities. Part 3 of a series

Meirav Arlosoroff
Meirav Arlosoroff
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New IDF recruits wait to be addressed by PM Netanyahu, Tel Hashomer absorption base, July 26, 2018
New IDF recruits wait to be addressed by PM Netanyahu, Tel Hashomer absorption base, July 26, 2018Credit: Moti Milrod
Meirav Arlosoroff
Meirav Arlosoroff

In 2005, the Israeli Defense Forces drafted only 77% of Jewish Israeli high school graduates. By 2019, that figure dropped to 69%. The explanation for this drop, in a country where there is technically a compulsory draft for all 18-year-olds, seems to be the same as the reason why Israel is holding elections for a second time in six months.

There’s a crisis over legislation aimed at curtailing draft exemptions for ultra-Orthodox Yeshiva students, or in other words, the quick population growth of the ultra-Orthodox community and the inability to make most of its members serve in the “people’s army.”

>> Read part 1 here: Should Israel scrap its 'people's army' model? ■ Read part 2 here: Most Israelis don't serve in the army, but it's still the right solution, for now

We can’t lie to ourselves anymore – there’s a problem with the “people’s army” ethos, considering that only a small, shrinking portion of the population buys into it.

Brig. Gen. (res.) Sasson Hadad, a former financial advisor to the IDF chief of staff, researched the issue with Prof. Asher Tishler at the Israel Democracy Institute several years ago, and concluded that the model of unpaid, universal draft is socially and economically justifiable only if 55%-60% or more of the population is conscripted.

Israel’s draft percentages are very close to this figure. Among Jewish men only 69% are drafted. If you add Arab men to the statistics, then it turns out that only 40% of all 18-year-old men are being drafted. For women the figure among Jews is only 55%, and if you include Arab women in the mix, the composite figure comes to just 33%.

Hadad, like Prof. Avi Ben-Bassat, who headed the 2005 committee examining Israel’s compulsory draft, still believes this system is best for Israel from an economic, military and social perspective. The alternative is maintaining a massive professional army in a constant state of war readiness, which is an expensive proposition. Socially speaking, the people’s army model has the most widespread public support it could hope for.

Hadad himself says the divisions made up of IDF conscripts are better than the career army divisions.

Both men say that socially, this is the best model for Israel. The people’s army ethos enhances patriotism and identification with the country and its army, and adds a measure of moderation to Israeli decision making, since the army is made up of “everyone’s boys.” One of the problems of making a transition to a professional army is that it would create a disconnect that may tend to lead politicians more readily to making decisions to go to war.

Thus, the people’s army concept has an unusual coalition of support from military, economic and political experts alike. But we can’t go on ignoring the fact that Israel’s people’s army is on unstable ground given the declining participation rate.

What should be done? Currently the leading suggestion is to postpone addressing the matter by seeking short-term solutions. The Ben-Bassat committee suggested reducing mandatory service, and have men serve two years instead of three, and women serve two years, as well.

The IDF would have the option of extending the term of duty for male conscripts by an extra four months, but would also have to pay these soldiers a minimum wage during the extension period. Thus, the committee sought to balance the unfair burden placed on a shrinking portion of the population, as well as encourage the IDF to make better use of conscripts by making it compensate the soldiers at market value.

The committee’s decision recognized that the IDF is a wasteful institution – it drafts more soldiers than it needs, since their service is nearly free of charge. Ben-Bassat said senior commanders acknowledged to his panel that the IDF has a problem of excess soldiers. Compulsory military service is extremely costly for Israel’s economy. The Finance Ministry estimates that it leads to an annual loss of some 5% of GDP, or 70 billion shekels a year.

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

Ben-Bassat said that the use of personnel instead of technology was often a tradeoff, and that by making the IDF pay to extend a soldier’s service, the committee was seeking to encourage the army to make better use of technology.

This market-based mechanism already exists to some extent within the reservists’ ranks. Since the IDF is forced to pay reservists a full salary, it has significantly lessened its dependence on them, to the point that some fear that Israel’s reserve army has become too small.

The committee’s model was supposed to provide an intermediate solution to enable Israel to preserve its people’s army. Shorter service better balances the unequal burdens placed on different sectors of the population, while those who do longer terms of service would be paid for doing so. It’s true that money provides little compensation for the job of being asked to sacrifice your life, but it’s the best compensation on offer for now.

For the army, such a model seems like an option. While the percentage of the population being drafted is dropping, the IDF is not actually lacking in personnel, as the actual numbers of new recruits does grow each year. In the near term From 2015 to 2025, the number of conscripted 18-year-olds is expected to grow by 25%. Even between 2015 and 2017, the number of Jewish 18-year-olds has risen from 91,400 to 95,500.

The IDF could make smarter use of the personnel it already has by letting women fill roles currently assigned only to men, and by not loaning out soldiers for civilian roles in the police or the education system. With these adaptations, the Ben-Bassat committee figured the IDF would do just fine with men serving only 24-28 months.

And yet, this is an interim solution that is far from enough.

The IDF’s willingness to adopt the Ben-Bassat plan dissipated after the Second Lebanon War in 2006, and the Finance Ministry has stopped fighting for it as well. As part of the negotiations over the multi-year budget, the IDF agreed to the ministry’s demand that men’s service be cut to 32 months, down from 36, and it is slated to be cut down to 30 months within a year.

In exchange, the IDF has received another 550 million shekels in its annual budget.

Negotiations over the next multi-year budget are due to start right after the next election. The Finance Ministry intends to demand another service cut, to 28 or 24 months for men. The IDF has thus far rejected the idea. The problem is that the Finance Ministry is no longer fighting for the market mechanism that Ben-Bassat wanted – that the IDF pay salaries to the men who serve longer than 24 months.

Thus the plan to push the IDF to make more efficient use of its personnel has been abandoned. Once the IDF and the Treasury finish their negotiations, and even if compulsory duty for men is cut to less than 30 months, the problem of the dissipating people’s army will remain.

Hadar acknowledged that by 2060, the projection is that only 25%-30% of 18-year-olds will be drafted, and thus the concept of a people’s army will be gone. Thus, Hadad and Tishler recommend preserving the mandatory draft while preparing for the day after, when Israel will have no choice but to rely on a professional army.

Shortening service is an important way station, but the IDF also needs to develop professional roles with appropriate pay to attract talented young people to serve. The IDF also needs to stop lending out soldiers for civilian roles. In general, though, it needs to prepare for a major change in the IDF and society as a whole.

The IDF said in response it is drafting a multi-year plan and it's too soon to discuss personnel changes,but it is not examining any option of cutting men’s service to 28 months.

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