Background / Taking a Knife to Israel's Last Sacred Cow

It may be the last sacred cow left standing in the Jewish state. But if an army-appointed panel of experts has its way, the Israel Defense Forces, too, will change radically - and, according to many observers, the sooner the better.

In Israel's national mythology, the aura of the army has no parallel.

Frequent criticism notwithstanding, it may be the last sacred cow left standing in the Jewish State.

Traditionally apolitical in the most feverishly political of nations, nominally universal in its melting-pot policies of conscription and regulation, the Israel Defense Force is still viewed by many as the Army of the People, a rare unifying phenomenon in a nation battered and torn by the polarizing effects of war, widening socio-economic-educational gaps, racism, intra-religious and inter-religious conflict and diplomatic paralysis.

From the inception of the state, the army has been the gateway to Israeli society, teaching the language and the singularly peculiar mind-set of those who spoke it to immigrants from more than 100 nations, and forcing residents of tony quarters literally to rub shoulders - and make life-or-death friends - with the likes of farm boys and residents of dead-end development towns.

However, if an army-appointed panel of experts has its way, the army, too, will change radically - and the sooner the better.

The committee, appointed by IDF Manpower Branch chief Major-General Gil Regev and headed by predecessor Gideon Sheffer, has recommended a series of steps intended to revolutionize the army, the institution that, more than any other, has molded modern Israel.

Among the committee's recommendations: Draft the best candidates, and only as many soldiers as the army absolutely needs for military purposes. Direct other youths to national service work, which would be mandatory but not military.

National service could be performed in hospitals, development towns and social welfare institutions, or in police, fire or ambulance work.

The committee would also replace meager IDF stipends and end-of-service grants with a monthly salary of some NIS 3,500, or about $800 - roughly 10 times the figure currently paid conscripts.

National service could be extended to Arabs as well, aiding rather than narrowing the integration process in Israel. Only a small fraction of Israel's more than one million Arab citizens serve in the army or in national service roles.

The committee's recommendations, which came to light Wednesday, come at a time when only half of the Israeli youth eligible for the draft are expected to complete their full service, and many more find ways to duck subsequent reserve duty demands.

Moreover, defense analysts have said in recent years, changes in warfare, technology, and regional threats have lowered the army's overall need for masses of recruits.

"After so many years, the time has come for us, not to slaughter sacred cows, but to make order," said prominent Israeli economist Yaakov Sheinin, a member of the Sheffer Committee.

In the 1950s, the army "took on all of the roles of society, beyond those of security," Sheinin noted.

The Nahal unit, for example, alternated army service with farm work on fledgling kibbutzim and moshavim - a role it still fulfills, even in an era that has largely traded tilling rocky fields for cutting-edge software pioneering.

"That was fine for the years of the establishment of the state. Now, the burden of security is truly heavy in itself, and we are a society that is strong enough and unified enough that the civilian matters should be overseen by the civilian institutions set up for these purposes, for inculcating values and unifying the youth," Sheinin said.

"Today, the concept of the melting pot and integration remains one of the most important factors, but in the year 2003-2004 this is no longer the job of the army," he told Israel Radio.

Committee members also noted that in an era of severe cuts in the defense budget, many army jobs deserve to be eliminated, such as the "nahag boss," the chauffeur of a 25-year-old army major.

"Instead of mobilizing people for all sorts of marginal jobs such as drivers and cooks, we need people who can fill positions as firefighters and highway police," Sheinin told Israel Radio.

"Every year more than 450-500 people are killed on our highways. If you trained young people as highway police, you might save several dozen people's lives."

Journalist and social commentator Ofer Shelach, who has just written a book on reforming the IDF, wrote Wednesday that the report addresses a subject "of which the army is aware, but whose consequences it still refuses to recognize: the collapse of the model of the People's Army, as it was enunciated by [Israel's founding prime minister] David Ben-Gurion."

"The panel's solution is a partial one, it is doubtful if it can be instituted, and there is great doubt if it will be adopted," Shelach wrote. "Still, for the first time, the problem has been laid on the table, and not by an external body, but by a committee established by the army itself."

Haaretz columnist Gideon Samet, who edited Shelach's book, "The Platter and the Silver: Why the IDF Needs a Revolution," said that it is clearer than ever before that the army must be "radically, dramatically changed. The only way to change the army is not by shifting budgets or building less tanks, but by dealing with our concept of what the Israeli army really is, totally eliminating compulsory service, and making the IDF - as much as it may sound like a contradiction in terms - a professional army."

According to Samet, the myth of the IDF as an indispensable force for social cohesion and integration was fact from the 1948 establishment of the state until the period following the 1967 Six Day War.

Although contemporary accounts exaggerated the size of the forces arrayed against Israel in 1948, "The army was what it was said to be, a People's Army. The country was, indeed, a small community of 600,000 people, facing extinction, and which lost one percent of the population, 6,000 people," according to Samet.

After the 1967 war, "circumstances changed, and we changed the army. After the big victory, it went to all of our heads. Between 1967 and 1973 it became a myth, the myth of Israeli might." The myth, in Samet's view, led to one of Israel's greatest tragedies, the great losses at the outset of the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

Not all Israelis welcomed the committee's findings, however. Some went on the offensive against the recommendations, suggesting that a "professional army" would only exacerbate disturbing social trends, closing off a possible avenue of upward mobility.

"More and more, the lower classes are being pushed to the margins of society, and now they're going to be pushed out of the army as well," said leftist Meretz party leader Yossi Sarid.

"The question should not be 'How much will this cost the IDF?' but 'How much will this cost the country?' The cost to the country is going to be much greater."