Why Are Israel's Best and Brightest Shunning IDF Combat Positions?

Haaretz report sparks hearing this week by Foreign Affairs and Security Committee on recruits' preference for tech and cyber roles, rather than tanks, artillery and engineering units.

Israeli soldiers from the Desert Reconnaissance battalion take part in a drill near the Gaza Strip in southern Israel, November 29, 2016.
Amir Cohen, Reuters

A Knesset subcommittee is due this week to discuss the low motivation for combat among young people the Israel Defense Forces deems to belong to “high-quality groups.” The hearing comes in response to a recent report by Haaretz.

The subcommittee of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Security Committee that deals with personnel and human resources issues in the army will hold the special session on Thursday.

Headed by MK Amir Ohana (Likud), the panel has invited IDF representatives to present research on the subject that was conducted by its behavioral sciences unit, to analyze its main findings and to discuss what steps the IDF is taking to handle the problem.

Haaretz reported this month that the army is facing a crisis in its field units and among its junior officer corps because it is finding it increasingly difficult to recruit suitable combat soldiers from certain groups in the greater population. Since the IDF typically recruits officers from among its rank-and-file combat soldiers, this is liable to undermine the quality of higher-ranking officers further down the line, according to the report.

In recent years, the army's behavioral scientists have noticed an ongoing decline in the willingness to join combat units among recruits whom it considers to be qualified for such service. Many of these youths, who score high in the army’s pre-induction assessment exams – and especially recruits from wealthier towns and neighborhoods – prefer to join technology units, whose prestige is growing, rather than combat units.

IDF tanks return after incident involving an exchange of fire with Hamas fighters, Jan. 15. 2017.
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

The problem is especially severe in units like the Armored, Engineering and Artillery Corps, which are considered “dull” by some. It is less noticeable in the infantry brigades and nonexistent in elite units. Nevertheless, the numbers are unequivocal: Recruits with the highest mental and physical profile rankings – even if they are medically fit for combat service – largely prefer units associated with high-tech, like cyber warfare, drones and aerial defense.

Among those scoring highest in the assessment process, the number that is willing to serve in field units has fallen by at least 20 percent in recent years.

The behavioral scientists’ research indicates significant declines in the importance the soldiers – among them combat soldiers, too – attribute to service in combat roles; in the soldiers' assessment of the quality of their direct commanders; and in the degree to which the fighters believe that their commanders will back them up in case of error. Additionally, there are proportionately fewer combat soldiers interested today in taking an officers' course or signing on to career army service.

A host of senior army brass who spoke with Haaretz after it publicized its report confirmed the researchers’ findings. They said that IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot views with utmost importance and urgency the issue of the motivation for combat service among soldiers from the so-called high-quality groups. They added that Eisenkot has ordered the new Manpower Directorate chief, Brig. Gen. Moti Almoz, to assemble recommendations for changing the way in which the army deals with this problem.