Analysis

The Beginning of the End of the Israeli People's Army

The IDF intends on taking another, further step away from the traditional model of the people’s army and will recommend a higher level of differentiation between its tracks of service

Israelis take cover during rocket attack siren warning in kibbutz Kfar Aza near the Israel and Gaza border.
AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov

The wave of flattering headlines in the press about the MossadShin Bet security service and the IDF has caused Israel, on the eve of Rosh Hashanah 5779, to look almost like a military state. On Tuesday evening, while the news agencies reported on another attack by the Israel Air Force in Syria, media consumers in Israel were flooded with a huge amount of details on IDF operations beyond Israel’s borders, as if someone wanted to present it as a counterweight to the achievements of the other branches of the security forces.

This information, important in its own right, about attacks against Iranian sites and operations against ISIS, overshadowed another important headline that came out of that same meeting: The IDF intends on taking another, further step away from the traditional model of the people’s army and will recommend a higher level of differentiation between its tracks of service.

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The incentive for this apparent change in policy was provided by the recent decisions on shortening the length of compulsory military service for men. This service was cut by four months, to two years and eight months. (Women continue to serve for two years.) Next March, the cabinet is scheduled to hear the views of the defense minister and IDF chief of staff about the proposal to cut a further two months off the length of service for men, beginning in June 2020.

The IDF considers this change to be both a risk and an opportunity. The General Staff will recommend the further cut only if it includes a much deeper change in the model of a people’s army. In the IDF’s headquarters in the Kirya in Tel Aviv, they do not dare to speak about a change to a professional military, even though only 67 percent of young people of draft age enlist in the IDF today. But the intention is to allow more long-term service tracks in professional jobs, starting from the very beginning of the enlistment, and at the same time to provide a wider range of lengths of service in less essential positions.

The first signs of such a change could be seen in the plan initiated by Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, in which elite combat soldiers are signed on for eight years, including two years of study for a college degree, in five special forces units: Sayeret Matkal, Shaldag, Navy SEALs, the Air Force’s 669 rescue unit and the Oketz canine unit. At the same time, when the Finance Ministry approved the shorter compulsory service, it also approved thousands more short-term positions in the professional military, from a few months to a year in length, for combat soldiers in the Commando Brigade and in junior command positions in other regular army combat brigades.

The plan is to substantially expand this program. Infantry squad leaders, tank commanders, medics and other commanders will sign up in advance for a short period in the professional military. In comparison, service in administrative posts would be shortened in the future to less than two years and four months. The idea, in short is for the country to reward those who serve in significant military roles, so as to fully exploit their training and experience. At the same time, the army will release earlier soldiers who they have less need of, who can begin their studies or work earlier.

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The IDF wants to take a calculated gamble, based on the assumption that talented young people will agree to sign up for an additional year of service in an important – and to a certain extent interesting – position, even if it does not require becoming an officer or serving in one of the prestigious elite units. The risk, of course, is that the temptation of an early release will outweigh the advantages provided by a short-term commitment in the regular army. In any case, this is the planned continuation of the program, but it is important to implement it gradually and still requires the defense minister’s approval, and later that of the full cabinet.

What are the fighters themselves interested in? In my meetings with the young people serving in command roles in combat units, more acclaimed or less so, what comes up time after time is the issue of the importance of their service. The questions repeat themselves: Is what we are doing important enough? Does Israeli society still recognize this? Is it appropriate for me, or someone else, to choose a more comfortable, less dangerous role? And even in another five or 10 years, will there still be enough people who will volunteer to carry the burden of combat service? In practice, service in combat units has become voluntary because it is relatively easy to get out of, even though the army does not state it officially.

A senior officer in the IDF’s field forces who was asked about this earlier this week said he also hears those kinds of questions.

“The world of war interests them greatly. They won’t say what frightens them, but when I approach them during an exercise, they interrogate me about what war will look like. The other question that keeps recurring is, ‘Does this really contribute to the state? What real impact does what we’re doing here have?’

“Most of them tell me they would advise their younger brothers to join combat units as well. And they have no inhibitions about voicing their views or making suggestions for improvement. They’re hungry for discussion about these things, but it must be brief and focused. As is typical for this generation, if you talk for more than a quarter of an hour, you’ll lose their attention.”

Like the General Staff, the senior field forces officer also sees a broad spectrum of recruits, with growing gaps between the young men who want to join a commando unit or the Golani Brigade and those who want to serve at army headquarters or avoid serving entirely. The new general of combat soldiers, he said, is significantly different than previous ones.

“We didn’t know very much about the world,” he explained. “When we were drafted, there were no cell phones. This generation knows English better than we did, its technical knowledge is greater, its understanding of the broader world is greater.

“We still have work to adapt ourselves to them,” he added. “There’s no reason why instruction about your personal weapon should look like it did 30 years ago. The way people learn and absorb things has changed completely since then.”