Gantz to form committee to consider universal conscription reform

Defense minister advancing his plan to implement national service alongside military duty to address situation in which only half of Israelis currently serve

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz, right, shakes hands with an IDF soldier during an event for the Sukkot holiday at the military's Kirya headquarters in Tel Aviv on September 23, 2021. (Tal Oz/Defense Ministry)
Defense Minister Benny Gantz, right, shakes hands with an IDF soldier during an event for the Sukkot holiday at the military's Kirya headquarters in Tel Aviv on September 23, 2021. (Tal Oz/Defense Ministry)

Defense Minister Benny Gantz on Thursday announced plans to form a committee later this month to consider how to reform the country’s conscription as only roughly half of potential recruits actually enlist in the military after high school.

“After the Sukkot holiday, we will form a government committee dedicated to the reformation of national and state service, which I have been working on and which the defense establishment has been working on for over a year,” Gantz said during a meeting with religious soldiers in honor of the week-long festival.

Gantz and the director-general of his ministry, Amir Eshel, have both come out in favor of a universal national service model to replace the current system, which exempts Arab Israelis and nearly all ultra-Orthodox Israelis from having to perform either military or civil service.

Gantz said this reform is necessary in order to both preserve the Israel Defense Forces as a “people’s army,” in which every citizen regardless of background is expected to serve, and to strengthen the country in general.

“With the foundation of the country, the IDF was also founded and conscription was required of everyone. Today, 73 years later, when only half of 18-year-olds enlist and when the country has gone from a policy of a melting pot to a nation of ‘all its tribes,’ we must develop a different model,” Gantz said.

In recent years, growing voices in Israel have called for the IDF to convert to a volunteer professional army, maintaining that this is both more efficient and more in line with the country’s current more pro-market, capitalist nature.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz speaks to IDF soldiers studying in ultra-Orthodox seminaries during an event for the Sukkot holiday at the military’s Kirya headquarters in Tel Aviv on September 23, 2021. (Tal Oz/Defense Ministry)

The defense minister said he wanted to broadly maintain the conscription model to “keep the IDF as a people’s army, a strong and diverse army,” but recognized that a significant percentage of Israelis would not want to fight in it and that other service options were necessary, in part in order to develop job skills.

“Alongside the people’s army, we will form security and civil service tracks, for those for whom military service is not appropriate, but who can still connect to and strengthen the country through charitable organizations, community assistance and by getting life skills and professions,” he said.

Many researchers of ultra-Orthodox and Arab Israeli societies have in the past expressed skepticism of Gantz’s proposals, believing that those communities, who — for different reasons — do not generally feel a close affiliation with the state, would be unlikely to willingly perform national service.

“There is no better alternative and I plan to act and to do whatever is necessary so that this reform goes forward,” he said.

Last month, Gantz told reporters he believed that if the matter is not addressed within the next decade, Israel will indeed move to a volunteer professional military.

“The goal is to get more than 70 percent of people to serve each year, whereas today we only have roughly 50%,” Gantz told reporters last month.

Ultra-Orthodox men walk outside the IDF recruitment office in Jerusalem, on December 5, 2019. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Gantz’s general plan for national service, which he released earlier this year, would ultimately require all Israelis to perform some form of national service after high school, barring an outstanding reason preventing it.

Under this proposal, the military would get first choice of recruits and the rest would perform other security and civil service roles, in the police, in hospitals, in schools, etc.

Everyone would be required to perform two years of national service. This would further shorten military service, a move that is sure to face criticism from the IDF, which already opposes the current service time of two years and six months for men, down from three years prior to 2015.

This model was largely developed by a group called Pnima, which was recently led by the director-general of Gantz’s ministry, Maj. Gen. (res.) Amir Eshel, and with which Gantz was also once involved. Michael Biton, Minister of Strategic Affairs in the Defense Ministry till 2018, who was also involved in Pnima, led the team that crafted the proposal, which included representatives from the Defense Ministry, the IDF and other government ministries.

Until now, even the most far-reaching proposals that have been seriously considered by the country’s governments have not called for full conscription of all ultra-Orthodox and Arab Israelis, as this plan does.

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