Poll: Almost half of Jewish Israelis support making IDF a professional army

New biennial survey by Israel Democracy Institute also finds military generally considered to be ethical, good at its job, bad with its money and middling at gender equality

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

Infantry soldiers from the Golani Brigade train in underground tunnel urban warfare at a mock Arab village on the Golan Heights on May 15, 2021. (Michael Giladi/Flash90)
Infantry soldiers from the Golani Brigade train in underground tunnel urban warfare at a mock Arab village on the Golan Heights on May 15, 2021. (Michael Giladi/Flash90)

Nearly half of Jewish Israelis support ending mandatory conscription and turning the Israel Defense Forces into a volunteer, professional military, according to a new survey by the Israel Democracy Institute published on Tuesday.

The idea, which has been gaining traction in Israel in recent years, is now more popular than continuing the so-called people’s army model — the first time that this has been the case since IDI began tracking public opinion about the issue in 2017.

The poll, which was released ahead of the think tank’s national security and democracy conference on Tuesday, asked roughly 1,000 adult respondents a number of questions about the military and its role in Israeli society. Roughly 80 percent of the respondents were Jewish Israelis and some 20% were Arab Israelis.

The vast majority of the Jewish Israeli respondents gave the IDF “good” or “excellent” ratings for more explicitly military-related issues, with 80% giving these grades for operational capabilities and 77% for “ethical conduct in combat.” Of the Arab Israelis surveyed, only about a third gave the IDF a positive score for its ethics.

Most Jewish Israelis do not see the IDF’s ethical conduct as necessarily being a positive thing, with 72% saying that following international law “makes it more difficult for it to carry out its security tasks,” according to the survey. It was a highly partisan question, with 81% of people who identified as right-wing and 69% of centrists agreeing with that claim, while only 33% of left-wing people did.

Similarly, a minority of right-wing people, 29%, said that international law should always be followed even if it has a negative effect on military operations, while 70% of people on the left said they felt that way.

In terms of partisanship, Jewish Israelis appear to increasingly believe that the IDF top brass’s politics is at odds with their own. Barely half of the respondents — 55% — said that the values held by the IDF senior command match those held by the general public. Two years ago, nearly three-quarters of Jewish Israelis believed that the IDF commanders had the same values as the general public.

On fiscal and social issues the military received more middling scores, with less than a third of Jewish Israelis saying the IDF manages its budget and finances in a “good” or “excellent” way, and only a quarter giving a positive assessment of the IDF’s treatment of soldiers and their personal problems. Just over 40% of Jewish Israelis gave the military a “good” or “excellent” score for gender equality, but that was somewhat divided along male-female lines, with 37% of women giving the IDF a positive grade, while 50% of men did.

The people’s army?

The IDF’s role as a “people’s army,” one in which all Israelis are meant to serve, has long been considered a double-edged sword. On one hand, it ensured that the best and the brightest in Israel served in the military, when they otherwise may have gone straight to university or into the workforce, while on the other hand, it also meant that the military was responsible for caring for people’s socio-economic well-being, including those in need of major assistance. It also meant that at times, the IDF was a bloated organization, with more manpower than it needed in certain fields.

In recent years, the IDF’s status as a “people’s army” has anyway been called into question as only roughly half all potential recruits actually end up enlisting in the military each year. The rest are either Arab, ultra-Orthodox or religious women, and thus exempt, or they are otherwise excused, normally for health reasons or other extenuating circumstances.

According to the survey, 47% of Jewish Israelis believe in canceling the draft, compared to 42% who oppose doing so. In 2019, the last time the question was asked, 41 percent of Jewish Israelis supported turning the IDF into a professional army, while 46.5 percent opposed it. In 2017, 38 percent supported ending the draft, compared to 59 percent who opposed doing so.

“The fact that 47% of the Jewish population believes that the mandatory draft should be abolished and the IDF transformed into a professional fighting force is highly problematic, and has the potential of creating a real security crisis,” Yohanan Plesner, פresident of the Israel Democracy Institute, said in a statement with the release of the poll.

“Convincing our best and brightest to serve in a professional army will demand unprecedentedly high salaries and benefits, and even then, this will not necessarily attract the quantity of high-quality personnel the IDF needs. We may find ourselves in a situation in which a small minority of idealists serve in the military alongside those who chose to sign up for lack of any better employment options,” he said.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz has also spoken out against the possibility of a professional army, but said earlier this year that if the country does not find a better universal conscription model, there will be no choice but to convert to a volunteer military.

Gantz has advocated creating a true universal draft, in which ultra-Orthodox and Arab Israelis will be required to perform some form of national service, though this is expected to meet harsh resistance from both of those communities.

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