Analysis |

Most Israelis Don’t Serve in the Army, but It’s Still the Right Solution, for Now

Israeli economists insist that the switch by the rest of the West to a professional army isn't a model for Israel because of the threats it faces. Part 2 of a series

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IDF combat soldiers during a military exercise near the Gaza border, 2017.
IDF combat soldiers during a military exercise near the Gaza border, 2017. Credit: Ilan Assayag

To read Part 1 in this series, click here.

In 2005, the committee considering whether military service should be shortened in Israel released a report that broached a bigger question: Had the time arrived to end the draft and create a professional volunteer army? (For the latest election polls – click here)

The question has become more relevant over time because far fewer young people are serving per capita. Based on the 2019 data that the military has released at the request of TheMarker, compared with the data in the report by the committee in 2005, the percentage of Jewish men being drafted has shrunk from 77% to 69%, while for women the number has fallen from 59% to 56%.

True, the rate of soldiers dropping out has decreased, so the rate of Jewish men finishing their service has remained steady at around 58%. Still, the dropout rate among women has risen from 4% to 7%, so the rate of them completing their service has fallen from 55% to 49% since 2005.

The decline in draft rates stems from the relative increase of the ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, community, and the failure to draft more Haredi men through the military draft law, the reason Israel is heading toward its second Knesset election this year. With a gross fertility rate of seven children per woman, the Haredim are the fastest growing community in Israel, and the Central Bureau of Statistics forecasts that their share of the population will soar from 11% in the mid-2010s to 32% by 2060. The fact that the rate of women being drafted declined more moderately is probably the result of more religious-Zionist women joining the ranks.

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The statistics suggest that the ethos of the people’s army is in a precarious state. Already nearly half of Jewish women and a third of Jewish men don’t go to the army, and demographic trends point to a continued slide. Add to these figures the community that no one counts, Israel’s Arabs, and only 40% of Israeli men and 33% of women serve in the army. Can the Israel Defense Forces still be called a people’s army?

Milton Friedman weighs in

Israelis seem reluctant to look at the data and debate the issue seriously, despite the question plaguing electoral politics. But the army and the government are deep in the debate. The 2005 committee, headed by Prof. Avi Ben-Bassat, devoted a great deal of its report to the question of switching to a professional volunteer army. Most developed countries have made this switch over the past 40 years, all backed by statistics showing that a small, well-trained and well-equipped professional army is much more efficient than a universal draft.

The most famous analyses, co-written by Milton Friedman, were done in the United States in the late ‘60s; they examined the draft during the Vietnam War. Friedman, one of the most renowned economists of the 20th century, contended that a professional army could be just as efficient with 30% fewer people.

But both the Ben-Bassat committee and a review five years ago by Prof. Asher Tishler and Gen. (Ret.) Asher Hadad concluded that the American model doesn’t apply to Israel. Israeli economists, contrary to their American and European colleagues, continue to side with the conscript model as a more effective and efficient tool to achieve the state’s military and financial goals.

They say the main reason for the difference lies in the nature of military threats. While most Western countries face limited military challenges like terrorism, which a small and efficient professional army can manage well, virtually none of them face the threat of total war like Israel. Because Israel can’t afford to lose a war, it would need a huge professional army to ensure victory in any scenario. Such an army, paying full salaries, is more expensive than Israel’s current flexible model, a conscript army with relatively few professional soldiers and a large number of reservists who can be called up when needed.

A question of quality

Even considering that a universal draft is a head tax, and that the Finance Ministry estimates that this tax costs the economy at least 5% of productivity – a loss of 50 billion shekels ($14 billion) annually in addition to the 60-billion-shekel budget for ongoing defense needs – the economists still estimate that the cost is less than that for maintaining a giant professional army.

The economists also side with Israel’s current model because switching to a professional army would lead to a drop in quality among the remaining personnel. Hadad, the former financial adviser of the General Staff, noted that the United States almost went back to the draft model after a decade because of the reduced quality of soldiers. Only after a significant raise in salaries did the Americans stabilize the army, and even then at a level inferior to a conscript army.

A professional army is considered better experienced, trained and equipped than a conscript army, yet the quality of personnel apparently remains significantly inferior to that of an army based on the potential draft of all eligible citizens. A commander of one of the IDF’s advanced technology branches recently told soldiers’ parents how Israeli draftees sometimes hold meetings with representatives of the U.S. Army.

“A young sergeant or second lieutenant is sitting on our side, while there are always techies with doctorates on the American side,” he said. “In the end, our second lieutenant teaches the American officers what to do. It’s because I have the right to choose the most talented young people in Israeli society.”

This commander is right, but he’s also sticking his head in the sand. As the draft rates in the army decline, it’s not clear that the model of the people’s army can hold out, even if we believe that it’s preferable. The crisis resulting from the military draft law is only an initial illustration.

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