Analysis |

Next Israel Army Chief May Find His Biggest Mission Lies Within IDF Ranks

Former lawmaker and journalist Ofer Shelah, now a senior researcher at the INSS, has written an extensive research on the state of the IDF's personnel and ground forces. He suggests a far-reaching overhaul while not overlooking the changes needed in the very ethos

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Maj. Gen. Herzl Halevi, deputy chief of staff and designated chief of staff.
Maj. Gen. Herzl Halevi, deputy chief of staff and designated chief of staff.Credit: Moti Milrod
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The final authorization to appoint Maj. Gen. Herzl Halevi as Israel’s next army chief of staff continues to be delayed – an unexpected dispute arose over the naming of the appointments committee chairperson during an election period.

On Thursday, the High Court of Justice rejected the appointment of retired Supreme Court Justice Menachem Mazuz to the post following a petition submitted against the attorney general, Gali Baharav-Miara. She will now have to find another solution. In any event, Defense Minister Benny Gantz intends to secure Halevi’s appointment before the November 1 election.

Until Halevi takes over, we’ll hear a lot of flowery rhetoric about the enormous burden he will bear, if and when Israel will decide to singlehandedly terminate Iran’s nuclear project. It’s very unlikely this will happen. Before any such development, and perhaps under current Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi, the army will more likely face a significant test in the territories. But the major challenge Halevi will face is only indirectly related to those arenas.

He will apparently have to end his predecessors’ long-standing procrastination and confront two acute, closely conncected crises. One involves all issues regarding army personnel, and the other the impact of the personnel situation on the status and function of the ground forces, which constitute the army’s largest but lately quite marginal branch.

Ofer Shelah, a senior researcher at the Institute for National Strategic Studies, has addressed these issues for several decades, as a journalist and later as a politician and a leading member of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. In the past year, Shelah wrote an extensive research paper on the army’s personnel policy (“A Multidimensional Service Model: Proposal for a Change in the IDF’s Manpower Structure”). The main points of this must-read document are being reported here for the first time. Its findings and conclusions, based both on interviews and on data provided by the military and the Finance Ministry, were recently presented to high-ranking army personnel.

Ofer Shelah in 2021.Credit: Ziv Koren

It’s safe to assume the high command accepts the bulk of the conclusions – perhaps with reservations about the severity of some of them (no organization is especially fond of looking in the mirror). However, if the army has a way out of this trap, this is probably it. This difficult mission awaits Halevi, assuming the politicians will continue focusing on power struggles and survival efforts until, and after, the election.

In recent years, Shelah wrote, the army’s various personnel components – conscript, career and reserve service – have faced a series of challenges constituting the “danger of a genuine crisis.” These challenges stem partly from causes beyond the army’s control: changes in Israel’s society, demographic structure and values; a decline in the public’s perception of an existential threat to the country; changes in the nature of warfare and in the enemy, which obligate rethinking the army’s utility and personnel needs; and economic growth, which intensifies competition for those who excel in professions in high demand.

In Shelah’s view, the IDF’s efforts to fix the personnel issue failed because they touched on only one element of the situation instead of the whole. “The conclusion is clear: the personnel model needs to undergo a total overhaul, from the draft and compulsory service, to the personnel structure of the reserves and the career-army model,” he wrote.

Otherwise, he averred, the model of the people’s army will collapse, as some officers predict is unavoidable, leading to a transition to a professional army. He warned such a model is unlikely to provide an optimal response to Israel’s security needs and could have “undesirable social consequences.”

That last sentence will probably come as something of a surprise to Shelah’s longtime adversaries. Around 20 years ago, he published a highly influential book, “The Israeli Army: A Radical Proposal,” in which he seemed to be urging precisely that: canceling the draft, abandoning the people’s army model, which he described already then as anachronistic, and acceping a necessary transition to a professional army.

In an interview with Haaretz, Shelah said this isn’t a 180-degree turn. “In retrospect,” he admitted, “that book was not fully worked out. I wanted to present the problems through the prism of the career army. I didn’t reflect enough on the notion that eliminating the conscript army is not a solution.”

IDF soldiers in the Gaza border town of Sderot, in August.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Three-part solution

As things stand now, Shelah said, the IDF needs to find a solution for three substantively different groups: conscripts and young officers, career officers and reservists. “The conscript army needs fewer people and more specialization,” he said. “The career army is, when all is said and done, one more professional organization in the labor market. The same rules operating elsewhere apply to it as well: reward, meaningful work, competition with other employment options. And as for the reserve army, it includes few volunteers, who labor under a huge load. To maintain three armies with different logics is becoming a more difficult mission.”

For years, Shelah observed, society and the army operated according to the ethos that the state would simply cease to exist without the army’s shield. “But surrounding conditions have changed,” he said. “The existential threat has dissipated, the face of war has changed, as has Israeli society. There is no shortage of soldiers; draft cohorts are larger due to population growth."

The problem lies in the decline in draft rates per cohort, and hence how the burden is divided. “There is a consistent rise in exemptions based on Torah observance or mental health. The erosion in the draft is evident among well-off recruits. If people once talked about ‘commando or pencil pusher,’ for some candidates today it’s ‘8200 or bust,’” he observed, referring to the elite intelligence unit. “Among these classes, which once supplied a hefty part of the IDF’s might, the draft rate for combat units and the officer corps has declined.”

The bottom line, he said, is that the regular army is larger than needed, declining in quality while becoming more expensive. The cost of the conscript soldiers – salaries, food, etc. – could total 9 billion shekels ($2.6 billion) a year. “These trends won’t stop. The children who will be drafted in 2030 have already been born,” he said. “Meanwhile, the army needs fewer people, but for longer periods.”

IDF reservists train at the shooting range, last year.Credit: Amir Levy

As for the career army, the army’s current model is simply not working. A serious problem arises after the initial years of career service. Officers who turn 28 wonder whether they can continue serving until age 42, when they can retire and get an army pension. Those who realize their prospects are slim will prefer leaving early.

“The current model, which offers an additional exit point at 35, is not appropriate for this generation, which does not plan its life so far in advance,” he said. “At the same time, the ever-increasing pensions are creating a serious burden for the defense budget, channeling public anger at the army.”

Shelah proposes a total overhaul regarding army personnel issues. The IDF would take the draftees it needs for military service; the rest would do security-oriented civilian service (policing, firefighting, search and rescue). “I am against civilian service that is not essentially security-based. Only a security task justifies a compulsory draft,” Shelah said.

Under his proposal, conscript service would gradually be shortened to two years. However, soldiers would serve an additional period with career-army conditions for tasks requiring more time. Remuneration will reflect the character of the service; people who serve in the military will receive more.

An IDF soldier in an intelligence training courseCredit: Eyal Toueg

The career model is meant to imbue the military system with greater flexibility: to annul the binding connection between promotion in job and promotion in rank, to civilianize non-military tasks, to enable a larger number of personal contracts and to reduce the number of soldiers sent to officers courses. All of the above, he argues, should not apply to the combat level, which has no parallel in civilian life.

“People there risk their life, and you cannot bring in civilian replacements. Combat personnel require a different system of remuneration, including entitlement to a pension.” In light of the greater load imposed on fewer reservists, and the sweeping exemption granted to many, Shelah proposes shifting to the remuneration model of the U.S. National Guard, with time spent in reserve service being recompensed like career army personnel.

Concurrently, the ethos also needs revamping. “The army needs to believe it is an outstanding organization offering fair remuneration and advancement opportunities.” A comparative examination that Shelah conducted with Mossad, Shin Bet security service and defense industry personnel suggests multiple necessary changes in the army’s personnel management.

“Normally, all the necessary decisions would be made in the civilian arena,” he said. “The army should not set the terms of the draft. It should focus on efficiently utilizing draftees. But [Israel’s] civilian sector is weak and incapable of coping with highly charged political and social issues.”

The General Staff is aware of the problem’s severity, he said. In fact, his study sprang from a conversation he had with Kochavi. “The facts are known to everyone. The entry of a new chief of staff is a huge opportunity,” he said. “I think Halevi will have no choice but to spearhead a process of change. The results will determine the quality of the army.”

The CEO of Ford met recently with the commander of the IDF’s Unit 8200. “What’s the secret of the unit’s success?” the CEO asked the commander, Brig. Gen. Y. (full name withheld). “In three words, it’s the Compulsory Service Law,” Y. replied. By which he meant the ability of the unit, which is the spearhead of the army’s intelligence system, to screen draftees for the best and most suitable for its mission. In the reality Shelah describes so sharply and precisely, that advantage will not be maintained forever. It looks as though the state and the army will have to adopt the solutions he’s proposing, or changes close to them, to stem the crisis and avert the anticipated damage.

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