The myth of compulsory military service in Israel

While the strategic decision to pursue a more efficient IDF is understandable, it will come at a cost.

IDF soldiers of the Golani Brigade train for scenarios involving enemies similar to Hezbollah. (photo credit: IDF SPOKESPERSON'S UNIT)
IDF soldiers of the Golani Brigade train for scenarios involving enemies similar to Hezbollah.
One of the most misleading myths about the State of Israel is that it has a “people’s army,” with universal compulsory military service. The truth is that the Israel Defense Forces transformed from a national conscription army to a smaller professional army, causing the military to no longer be representative of the population.
The catalyst for this change comes from a growing demographic of those unwilling to serve. While two growing societal segments are exempt from conscription, the number of draft-evasions has never been higher, and the motivation to join combat units has never been lower. Surprisingly, the government has been doing very little to counter these trends. On the contrary, for fascinating strategic reasons the political and military leadership has embraced them, potentially putting the population on a course of division.
According to the 1949 Israeli Security Service Law, conscription to military service is compulsory for all Israelis who turn 18. Only two groups are exempt from mandatory military service: the ultra-Orthodox and Arab Israelis. Together these groups constitute over 30% of the Israeli population and, as their birth rate is significantly higher than other groups within Israel, they are set to constitute a whopping 60% of the Israeli population by 2050. The implications of these groups’ continued absence from Israeli military conscription cannot be ignored.
Successfully circumventing mandatory enlistment is becoming an increasingly widespread occurrence in Israel. The enlistment rate among Israelis who are obligated to serve has plummeted from 75% to less than 50% in only 20 years. While Israeli law allows the military to punish draft-evaders with jail time, the reality is that most cases are simply ignored.
Hence, compulsory military enlistment in Israel is but an old myth. In reality, 35% of the Israeli population carries the burden, while the remaining 65% find ways to avoid military service without having to suffer any consequences.
As a result, motivation among new recruits to join combat units is declining at an alarming rate. According to recent surveys, willingness to serve in combat units dropped from 90% in the 1990s to 80% in 2010 and to only 67% in the last enlistment round.
Israeli leaders haven’t countered these trends but rather encouraged them. They claim that the current threat level facing the state does not justify the great expense of sustaining a mass army. They fear that reversing the conscription exemption for ultra-Orthodox Jews and Arab Israelis, or enforcing military enlistment on those who evade it, would only lead to unnecessary expenses and would be operationally ineffective.
Consequently, over the last few years, the IDF adopted some of the most revolutionary policies in its short history, meant to optimize manpower and enhance professionalism. The military’s drafting agenda has transformed overwhelmingly into an army focused less on conventional warfare capabilities, and more on rocket defense systems and cyber capabilities. The common denominator of these changes is the deliberate prioritization of knowledge and professionalism over large numbers of soldiers.
The 2015 multi-year “Gideon Plan” ordered the IDF to shorten the length of male soldiers’ service, cut 2,500 officer posts, and discharge 100,000 combat soldiers from the reserve army.
These changes are alarming, but certainly not lacking strategic justification. Israel’s security considerations have pivoted immensely in the last decade. Whereas before, the primary threat to Israel’s security was hostile neighboring states, today, the Israeli intelligence community believes that the primary threats to Israel are asymmetrical and unconventional threats, such as the growing preponderance of Hamas and Hezbollah and Iran’s aspirations to develop a nuclear weapon. These are threats far different from the forms of conventional warfare in which the IDF once required absolute predominance for survival.
Essentially, the IDF is reducing 30% of its manpower as it seeks to have a smaller, but not less effective, military. This might have been wishful thinking.
A recent report issued by IDF’s chief ombudsman warned that due to the major cuts in manpower and training “the IDF is currently at its worst crisis, and will not be able to deal with current threats.” To make matters worse, the report showed that qualified officers are fleeing the army, especially those from the combat ranks, as they see no future career prospects in remaining active.
These shifts affect civil-military relations in Israel as well. The IDF no longer reflects the diversity of the Israeli population, and the gap between the Israeli society and the military is expanding rapidly. While Modern Orthodox Jews are only 8% of Israeli population, their representation among non-senior combat officers is approximately 40%.
What’s more, economic incentives offered to those who serve as combat soldiers has attracted youth of low socioeconomic background. As these groups tend to hold much more conservative views than the rest of the Israeli population, the ideological divide between the general Israeli society and the military is likely to widen, and the outcome may well be an IDF completely dissonant from Israeli civil society.
While the strategic decision to pursue a more efficient IDF is understandable, it will come at a cost. At best, the IDF may become more professional, but create greater distinction and less commonality between citizens that do and don’t serve. In the worst case, the latter will still occur, but the IDF will continue to spiral into a crisis of officer drain, lack of combatants, and ill-preparedness.
As the benefits for military service diminish in the eyes of young Israelis, additional variables will enter the equation. Following voter sentiment, political parties will increasingly promise to make the informal policy formal and cancel conscription in Israel. The cancellation of conscription in Israel is therefore not a question of if, but of when. How the end of the “people’s army” will change Israeli society remains an open question.
The author is a PhD candidate at the War Studies Department of King’s College London and the program manager of the Argov Fellows program in leadership and diplomacy at IDC Herzliya.