(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz's announcement this week that he had approved the Ben-Bassat Commission's recommendations for reducing mandatory military service was welcome news. Such proposals are hardly new, nor have they, once announced, always been implemented. We hope that this time the proposed changes do happen, as they mark minimal adaptations the IDF should make to changing circumstances.
The Ben-Bassat Commission proposes reducing mandatory service for non-combat male soldiers from three years to two years by 2010. Men serving in combat units will have their service reduced by eight months and anyone serving more than two years will receive competitive salaries for any additional months of service. There will be smaller reductions in service starting with soldiers drafted in summer 2004.
Predictably, in this campaign season, the government has been criticized for unveiling this popular plan now, a few weeks before the elections. In response, Ben-Bassat has protested that his committee was composed entirely of professionals and was formed almost a year ago, when elections were not yet on the horizon.
Most likely, both assertions are true: The committee did its professional best to produce reasonable recommendations and the political echelon was quick to reap the electoral potential of the committee's work. Sometimes, however, good policy and good politics can go hand in hand.
In this case, Ben-Bassat's recommendations are part of a long and necessary process of downsizing the IDF. Our army does not need the numbers of armored and infantry divisions it once did. Even the fight against terrorism, which put the brakes on much of the streamlining process over the past few years, has been mainly the work of relatively small, elite units.
The combination of the army finding itself facing fewer personnel-heavy conventional threats and the arrival of a million new immigrants during the 1990s makes the case for reductions in mandatory service compelling. As Mofaz pointed out, every month that is taken off a young recruit's service means a month that can be utilized for higher education or earlier entry into the work force.
None of this is an argument for a wholesale transition to a professional army, which is usually called a "volunteer" army, in that it does not rely on compulsory service. The "volunteer" militaries of countries like the US and the UK, as high quality as they are in global terms, cannot draw upon the quality of recruits that Israel can, since every qualified young man and woman is obligated to serve. The many exceptions and deferments may compromise the fairness of the draft, but they do not eliminate this basic difference in comparison with "volunteer" militaries.
Under the proposed reform, there would be more differentiation between the service of combat and non-combat soldiers. The latter clearly need more time to train, and there is good reason for the IDF to keep them for longer. The reforms will help address the IDF's glut of non-combat labor, which encouraged many inefficiencies.
Ben-Bassat also made recommendations to better utilize female soldiers, whose service time will not be shortened and who could be integrated more effectively in many roles.
The committee also suggested, partly in an effort to equalize lengths of service, eliminating specialized tracks such as hesder and Nahal. Mofaz says these proposals are under discussion, but he has made no promises to implement them. Indeed, it is not at all clear that such arrangements should be thrown out just because they represent variations in terms of service. If certain frameworks have proved worthwhile to the military and to society, they should be harmonized with other service tracks, not eliminated.
Since the defense budget is not public, estimates range significantly as to how much the reforms will save. Whatever the savings are - somewhere on the order of NIS 1 billion - they are significant, and the money freed up should be carefully spent. Most importantly, however, the Ben-Bassat proposals should not be forgotten after the elections, or cancelled because the IDF has allowed internal resistance to change to return to the fore.