Government committee to consider reforming IDF draft, broadening national service

Commission will examine swapping current enlistment model for true universal draft, with some Israelis serving in the military and others performing national service

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

Ultra-Orthodox men protest outside the army recruiting office in Jerusalem on August 21, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Ultra-Orthodox men protest outside the army recruiting office in Jerusalem on August 21, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Defense Minister Benny Gantz have formed a committee to consider reforms to Israel’s military and national service drafts, and potentially expanding the national service requirement into a mandatory program, their offices said Wednesday.

Gantz has repeatedly called for national service reform, saying that without such an effort, the country would be forced to end the draft and change the Israel Defense Forces into a volunteer, professional army.

The committee will “consider adjustments to IDF service and national and civil service, building a new, broad and updated framework, which addresses the needs of national security, the economy, and Israeli society, for the diverse groups in its population, which will have broad national appeal,” according to a joint statement from the Prime Minister’s Office and Defense Ministry.

According to the statement, the commission will be led by Cabinet Secretary Shalom Shlomo and Gantz’s chief of staff, Maayan Yisraeli, and will include representatives from the Justice, Finance, Economy, Social Equality, and Defense Ministries, as well as the Prime Minister’s Office, IDF, and National Service Authority.

The committee was formed in accordance with a cabinet decision that was passed in August.

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.

Friends and family see off new recruits to the IDF’s Paratroopers Brigade at the Tel Hashomer military base outside Tel Aviv, July 28, 2016. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

“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 September.

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.

A recent survey conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute found that for the first time since it began tracking the issue, more Israelis support ending the draft and turning the IDF into a professional military than support maintaining the current system.

The defense minister has 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 in September.

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.

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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