Defense Update - News Analysis by David Eshel

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Should Israel afford a professional Army?

From the beginning, in 1948, David ben Gurion’s idea of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF- Zahal) was that everyone would serve men and women, young and old, secular and religious with few exceptions. A new, besieged and outnumbered country would safeguard itself with a universal draft and a reserve system that would keep citizens in uniform well into middle age. The military would be the common denominator in a society of disparate immigrant groups. The entire nation would be the army and the army would loyally serve the nation. It was a romantic notion, one that added to the mystique of the IDF. In fact, however it soon turned out that the “people's army” was always something of a misnomer.

Israel’s Arab citizens, who today make up 18% of the population, have always been exempt. So are ultra-Orthodox Yeshiva (Judaic Talmudic school) students, according to a decree made in 1948. Although yeshiva students in Israel are exempt from military service, students who attend, what are known as hesder yeshivot, voluntarily serve in the IDF. The word “hesder" translates as agreement, and both the State of Israel and its armed forces have agreed to permit the yeshivot to send their religious Zionist students for training and service as self-contained military units. Due to their high motivation, “hesder”soldiers mostly serve in elite combat units and are legendary for their bravery in battle. But the IDF command became extremely concerned about pullout-related insubordination among religious soldiers from hesder yeshivas, and particularly among lower echelon commanders. One brigade commander, for instance, begged his superiors not to put hesder students in his brigade anymore, saying that he does not want soldiers who obey their rabbis rather than their commanders.

Matters deteriorated further, when leading rabbis urged their former students to disobey orders related to, what they considered, political decisions. Outstanding was the declaration by Rabbi Avraham Shapira to refuse orders to evacuate Jewish settlements in Gaza. Rabbi Shapira has direct influence over the position of hundreds of religious conscripts and reservists.
Following several incidents of mission refusals, by either right or left motivated draftees, the IDF came to the conclusion that it could not rely entirely on its national servicemen for the Gaza disengagement mission. Moreover, facing the concern, that mental strain and psychological backlog on young draftees, could turn out extremely dangerous, with long-term stress situations, affecting their mandatory service term. After lengthy deliberations therefore, the IDF and Police commands, decided to form special units, on temporary basis, for this extraordinary task, placed by the democratically elected leadership.

The resulting ad-hoc disengagement force was formed out of more mature personnel, recruited from rear area units, all regular servicemen, mostly with families. Special care was taken to select those known as secular, or moderately religious, but recognized as loyal and reliable, free from the negative influence of extremist rabbis. These ad-hoc units were, of course, only a temporary solution for an outstanding mission, and accordingly, the price was substantial. For several months, during which these non-combat troops underwent special training, rear area logistical bases became virtually freezed and in an emergency, this could have had serious consequences for IDF combat readiness. Fortunately this did not happen. The after-action lessons must be, that in future a more effective solution should be reached in order to enable Israel’s security forces to implement political decisions, in future, without disrupting the entire infrastructure for a single, even if temporary mission of national importance.

The refusal problem does not only affect right wing religious, but also left oriented servicemen. In 2003, then commander of the Israeli air force, General Dan Halutz ( presently IDF chief of staff), suspended nine active pilots who signed the well publicized "pilots' letter" asking to be exempt from further flights against civilians in Gaza. In June that same year, three young ‘refuseniks’ delivered a stirring detailed anti-occupation testimony of a kind never before heard in an Israeli military court. It is clear that army would prefer that prisoners of conscience opt for a psychological discharge, instead of fighting for their ideological principles. This hitherto totally unprecedented phenomenon,could send a warning signal to the authorities, that some comprehensive soul searching is urgently required to set a new national agenda for mandatory military service.

The Gaza disengagement has been hugely controversial within Israel. In particular, the government's decision to use the army to carry out the forced removal of Jewish settlers from the area. This move has threatened to split Israeli society over the political issue.

For decades the understandable tendency to write up the virtues of the IDF's militia-type structure has distracted public attention from the tactical conditions that have facilitated its success. Considering the disadvantageous conditions under which the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) entered theso-called 1973 Yom Kippur war, its ultimate achievements were outstanding. Of the several factors which turned the tide, undoubtedly the most significant was the heroic performance of the IDF's reservists. Pitched into combat at literally a moment's notice, Israel's citizen-soldiers saved the country from military humiliation. That accomplishment exerted a profound effect on Israeli strategic planning. Although in later years, this conclusion came to be questioned, the performance of the IDF reservists in 1973 was considered at the time to be a vindication of the IDF's force structure as a whole. Hence, whereas several other dimensions of Israeli security thinking were subsequently reviewed and in some cases revised, the IDF's retention of its traditional framework of military service was not affected.

Under the present circumstances, institutionalizing the strategic planning process would have significant advantage: it might compel Israel's security community, as well as the larger Israeli public, to come to terms with a fact that is well known but rarely discussed: the need to change the nature of Israel’s armed forces.

Future battlefield scenarios, which Israel will have to face, on the ground as well as in the air and at sea, are being transformed by exponential advances in the production of "smart" weapons and by the high-technology nature of modern, computerized systems of command, control, communications, and intelligence. Referred to in the aggregate as the "revolution in military affairs," these changes call not only for the acquisition of a more advanced arsenal; they also require the development of a different caliber of soldier—one who has undergone the lengthy and intensive training necessary to become expert in the . maintenance and realization of complex battle-platforms.

Can relatively short-term conscripts, even well-educated ones, acquire the needed skills? Can part-time reservists be relied upon to conserve their skills under conditions of accelerated technological change? In short, do not present conditions mandate a shift to a more professional force, principally, if not entirely, composed of career personnel? While one school of thought in Israel preaches the advantages of an all-volunteer professional force, other voices warn of its risks. But there are other issues involved, which may have a considerable bearing on any future decision. A significant factor revealed following the latest experiences in Gaza, is that the religious sector is unreliable to implement political decisions by a democratic elected government. Unfortunately, the fact is that in the coming years this very sector will become the mainstream of IDF command and its combat units. Nearly forty percent of the present officer candidates are already “hesder” Yeshiva graduates.

In Israel’s society, the IDF remained (until the disengagement from Gaza) the only concensus among the public, which is deeply divided between left and right, religious and secular, ashkenazi and oriental, black and white etc. To abolish mandatory service would eliminate this sole remaining national asset to which all Israel has continually looked up to. Whatever the decision, it will certainly become a very painful aspect in Israel’s society.


  • From Dov Kivel
    [email protected]

    Please allow me that your text
    on a whether to opt or not for a professional army seems one of leftist antireligious -propaganda.
    It would be be OK to write something of the kind in Haaretz, but seems displaced in Website as yours which should remain professionally oriented and do not eneter in polemic considerations.
    Globally the Web Site is much interesting and merits to be further extended.
    Please do not let the leftist instincts of some writer of yours spoils all this good work
    Dov Kivel-Jerusalem

    By Anonymous, at 3:47 PM  

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