Israel’s citizen army should be untouchable

by Maskil on July 20, 2008

The Jerusalem Institute for Market Studies (JIMS) has just published initial results from the Israel Panel Study of Opinion Dynamics (IPSOD) survey. According to their website:

IPSOD reveals that the majority of the Jewish population in Israel supports the idea of a smaller and smarter army, but is not yet willing to let go of the “people’s army.”

Support for conscription, the concept of a “people’s army” and punishment for draft dodging is still strong, but by no means universal. Likewise, opposition to a “voluntary professional army like in the USA” is also strong, but also by no means universal.

At a time when Israel faces massive existential threats, after the professional leader group of the IDF led Israel to an inconclusive draw with Hezbollah, and when that same conflict demonstrated the absolute need for “boots on the ground” in order to win an asymmetrical conflict, should we even actually be debating this? A debate is usually healthy, but the problem with debating an issue such as this is that the issue never goes away. Irrespective of the strengths of the argument, someone fighting for his or her political survival will use this issue as a crutch, and push through some ill-advised measure to further it. The genie simply never returns to the bottle.

To get back to the debate, however, here is a piece I drafted some time back in response to the article “The Call of the Hour: A Revolution in the IDF” published on the now sadly defunct Omedia website. The Omedia article promoted the idea of the professionalization of the IDF. With the passage of time, I have had to edit my response slightly.

Israel’s citizen army

While I support much of what is being proposed here, I must take issue with the idea of abolishing the draft and establishing a purely professional army and “professionalising” the reserves.

I’m sure that most would agree that the IDF is in need of a drastic overhaul, but I don’t believe that this necessarily invalidates the idea of a citizen army. If only half of those drafted actually serve, we need to look at the issue of how deferments and exemptions are granted (in particular blanket exemptions, such as in the case of supposed Haredi Yeshiva students). Instead of discarding the principle of universal conscription, we should instead apply it scrupulously and without fear or favour. The issue of those not reporting for reserve duty also needs to be addressed, by means of a culture shift or stricter penalties in need.

As regards the professionalism of the existing professional arm of the IDF, in the last couple of years, I have seen the following and other (even more serious) accusations being levelled against them in the mainstream Israeli press:

  • Most of the IDF’s budget goes towards the remuneration of career soldiers
  • They are overweight and unfit
  • Officers are under trained and unqualified, particularly in the higher ranks
  • They are simply time serving

For these reasons, I do not believe that the solution lies in replacing the citizen army with a professional army. The problem is not the model being followed, but how it is being applied.

The bottom line is, once this last national treasure (the citizen army) is destroyed, it can never be brought back again, except in the most extreme circumstances.

It’s difficult to accept that a country in Israel’s situation has a manpower surplus. Assuming this is the case, however, perhaps some of the glut could be redirected to other uniformed or security services, e.g. the Police and Prisons services, the Green Police and the emergency, medical and rescue services?

Please see the following link for another perspective on this debate:

Save the Citizens’ Army (Michael B. Oren and Benjamin Balint)

Lastly, I would also like to point out that Switzerland, for example, has not fought a war in recent history, yet the principle of universal conscription and military service is widely accepted and practiced.

From what I understand, the national consensus around conscription has been eroded by the IDF’s role in the so-called Palestinian territories. If this is the case, perhaps service in the disputed territories (except in a genuine counter-insurgency or anti-terrorism role) could be on a voluntary basis?

Omedia : Security and Defense – Opinions- The Call of the Hour: A Revolution in the IDF

Israel’s citizen army is irreplaceable. With all the other cracks and fissures in Israeli society, it would be simply impossible to reintroduce it in the event that the IDF is “professionalised”. Let’s get this debate over quickly, and agree that in this time and place, doing away with the citizen army would be tantamount to national suicide.

JIMS – Data Analysis> Survey

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