Should Israel Scrap Its 'People’s Army' Model?

'Half those of draft age don’t serve, and the wealthy and those with connections get elite positions,' advocate for professional army argues. Part 1 of a series.

Meirav Arlosoroff
Meirav Arlosoroff
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Draftees arrive at the IDF's reception base in central Israel, March 19, 2017.
Draftees arrive at the IDF's reception base in central Israel, March 19, 2017.Credit: David Bachar
Meirav Arlosoroff
Meirav Arlosoroff

To read Part 2 in this series, click here.

His jeans, long hair and T-shirt give the impression that Dror Lavy is a typical Tel Aviv party goer, and even his job as a video editor fits the part. Nothing betrays Lavy’s extreme neoliberal bent. He characterizes himself as “an activist on the liberal scene, Aristotelian in outlook, an ardent supporter of the views of Ayn Rand and Milton Friedman.”

Haaretz Weekly Episode 38

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Lavy is among the few who dare talk about the elephant in the room – the reason why we Israelis are headed this month for the second Knesset election in six months. It’s all about “the people’s army.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu failed to form a government following the April election because his former coalition partner, Avigdor Lieberman of the Yisrael Beiteinu party, insisted on legislation that would subject more ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students to the draft.

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Dror Lavy.Credit: Eden Corruccini

Lavy is the founder of a non-profit organization called Hazit that is advocating for a professional volunteer army and the end of the military draft in a shift to a model similar to that of the United States.

The Knesset election on September 17 has been forced on us over the issue of military conscription – or the inability of the state to maintain the principle of equality by drafting ultra-Orthodox men. (And what about ultra-Orthodox women?) So Lavy’s seemingly unfounded position looks a bit less baseless than it first sounds. Has the time come to acknowledge that the ideal of the people’s army is no longer working?

There’s something symbolic in considering the issue of the people’s army exactly 80 years after the outbreak of World War II – a conflict that represented the peak of mandatory military service around the world.

Through their research for the Israel Democracy Institute, Prof. Asher Tishler, the former president of the College of Management, and Brig. Gen. (res.) Sasson Hadad, the two say universal military conscription in Europe in the late 19th century is what made the outbreak of the two world wars possible. The supply of soldiers made it possible to fight wars that were longer, more expensive and of course also deadlier.

Only Israel and North Korea

The heavy price of the universal draft, which contributed to a higher level of casualties in war, led to it falling out of favor in the modern world. Over the past 40 years, there has been a steady shift to professional and much smaller armies. The universal draft still exists (in most of Scandinavia, for example), but in general it is not truly universal. It applies only to men and only a minority of males serve, and usually only for short stints.

Mandatory military service as it exists in Israel – including women and for up to three years – apparently only exists in Israel and North Korea. Lavy uses this less than complimentary feature that North Korea and Israel have in common in his effort to end mandatory military service by Israelis.

Police break up demonstration by ultra-Orthodox youth against drafting of yeshiva students, Jerusalem, July 2, 2019.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

His opposition to the draft is a product of his liberal positions and his faith in freedom of the individual. The draft is undoubtedly a major infringement on that. One need only look at the military prisons. The rate of incarceration in the Israeli army is much higher than in the civilian sector and most of the military prisoners have economic and disciplinary problems. Only 10% of the inmates have committed criminal offenses.

“Economically weak people who desert because they need to help support their families are the ones put in army prison,” Lavy claims. “Instead of a free, democratic society in which the individual fulfills himself, we force the draft on them, which mostly hurts the weak.”

The arguments against the draft don’t only involve personal values. It also has social and economic consequences. The Israeli army budget is huge and there is no disagreement that compulsory military service of up to three years exacts a heavy price on the economy – ongoing harm to productivity and GDP, as a result of the delayed entry of young Israelis into the job market. The Finance Ministry estimated the damage at about 5% of GDP over the years, which is more than 50 billion shekels ($14 billion) a year in lost gross domestic product.

Friedman’s philosophy

Lavy makes reference to studies conducted in the United States in the late 1960s that led to an end to the draft there after the Vietnam War ended. Among the most important of those studies, one that got the endorsement of economist Milton Friedman, an advocate of the power of choice, claimed that a professional army is more efficient than an army of draftees and that a professional army could produce the same results with 30% fewer people.

Friedman attributed it to the freedom of the individual to choose – that a professional army was made up of people who wanted to be soldiers and as a result, military service made good use of their skills and potential. That’s in contrast to requiring that the entire population serve, including many who don’t want to be soldiers and don’t have a comparative advantage to offer.

In addition, professional armies are more experienced and skilled. That’s especially important when it comes to the use of advanced technology. By the time soldiers doing mandatory service acquire the skills to use the technology, they’re being discharged. That’s one of the reasons, of course, why the Israeli army’s elite technology units require their soldiers to sign on for longer military service.

All of that brings us to the elephant in the living room: the disintegration of the ethos of the people’s army. “Everyone talks about a melting pot, but it hasn’t existed for a long time,” Lavy notes. Half of all those reaching draft age are not drafted and among those who do serve, there is a distinction between the rich and well-connected, who go to elite units such as the Intelligence Corps’ Unit 8200, and everyone else, he says.

Lavy therefore thinks the time has come to address the taboo surrounding the people’s army. In an era in which most countries are eliminating the draft and opting for a professional army, Israel can at least debate the subject. As an example, he mentions the changes that have been instituted in reserve duty. Since the army has been required to pay reservists a full salary, it is calling up fewer of them, and the army’s reliance on the reserves has waned to such an extent that it puts the reserves’ fitness to serve at risk.

“Mandatory military service is the reason that we’re having a repeat election, as a result of the crisis over conscription legislation,” Lavy notes. “Mandatory service doesn’t connect the different sectors of the population. On the contrary, it creates factionalism and incitement and also provides the means for politicians to inflame things, exploiting the principle of equal sharing of the burden as an electoral asset. Hasn’t the time come at least to discuss this?”

Yes, the time has come. As a practical matter, the issue has been under discussion since 2005, when an official panel, the Ben-Bassat committee, presented its recommendations on shortening the period of army service. The debate in its most modest form, over shortening military service and pay for those who serve, is expected to again surface right after the election as part of discussions between the army and the Finance Ministry on the army’s upcoming multiyear plans. It promises to be among the most bitter battles between the two.

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