For more than a decade now, we’ve all heard the idea that changing the Israel Defense Forces from a mandatory to a professional volunteer army will make the military better and Israel stronger. With a professional army, the argument goes, social inequalities related to mandatory service will become a thing of the past. It’s completely clear to anyone who truly understands Israel’s national security challenges that these arguments are utterly baseless.
This problematic concept, however, which is absolutely incompatible with Israel’s security and social challenges, is gaining supporters—as evidenced by the figures recently published by the Israel Democracy Institute, whereby over 50 percent of the country’s Jewish citizens support the shift to a professional army.
As a researcher focusing on social-military relations—and based on extensive experience in the field as a commander and soldier—I have reservations about these findings, and also about the research methodology used to reach them. However, we must still ponder this statistic and try to understand what it means. What are the implications of a non-inconsequential portion of the public actually believing a professional army is right for Israel?
Indeed, this idea is not only unequivocally wrong but even very dangerous, both to society and to the country’s security—and no less to the Israeli economy. To better understand the situation, I will endeavor to address the various arguments used to advance the professional army model.
A professional army will be more skilled
Upon cursory consideration, this would appear to be true—but it doesn’t hold up to deeper analysis. The quality of any army depends first and foremost on the quality of the individuals comprising it, and no platform, training, or technology will change this. The quality of the manpower in a professional army is lower, mainly because those who choose it prefer it as a job over other jobs—and they don’t have many other options. Those who choose to serve in the army for pay do it because they don’t have much to offer in the labor market. And for anyone doubting this claim, kindly examine who serves in professional armies across the globe.
A professional army will be cheaper
This is absolutely not the case. Western countries spend far more on these soldiers than meets the eye. As it is, the Israeli public barely tolerates career soldiers’ salaries. What do you think will happen if the entire IDF becomes a career army? It’s important, at this point, to also remind readers that more than 50 percent of the IDF’s might lies in its reserve forces. Obviously, in a professional army, these reserves will be slashed and replaced with more career soldiers. Meaning more expenditure, more salaries, more pensions.
A professional army is a progressive army
Some argue that social agendas have turned the IDF into a battlefield for social causes such as feminism. They argue that all such tensions would disappear in a professional army. That it would be an army based solely on professional (male) militarism. In fact, the exact opposite would be the case. A professional army is the pinnacle of all agendas because whoever wants to enlist can, and whoever doesn’t want to, doesn’t. Who, then, will actually enlist? As noted above, on one hand unskilled, cheap manpower, and on the other hand people with nothing but agendas. Again, to those who are truly interested, kindly look at what happens in armies, which certain scholars describe as “post-modern militaries,” once they become professional.
There would be service equality in a professional army
Again, the exact opposite is the truth. By and large, those who enlist in professional armies hail from the lower socio-economic strata. They will be the ones to pay the price in blood for the country’s defense. Is this equality?
A professional army will provide better security
To be sure, this is an exceedingly superficial view. The IDF’s ability to adapt to Israel’s fluctuating security situation is mostly based on the option of calling up reserve forces, allowing the army to double in size in times of emergency. This helps provide a response to security crises and buttresses the standing army. The State of Israel cannot rely on a professional army with fixed dimensions; it must have reserves. A reserve army is a precondition for the country’s security. And from where would these reserve soldiers come? The only pathway is a mandatory army to feed the reserve units.
The five points addressed here are the most central to the debate. While none of them are cut and dry, to all those in favor of a professional army, I have another question: Is there another social platform in our country that creates a similar meeting point between all strata of society?
That truly connects the periphery to the center; between religious and secular; Jews and non-Jews? Is there another platform that brings everyone together under a shared sense of mutual guarantee?
There isn’t, obviously. The IDF stands alone in this department and is the only stately body Israel has left.
Indeed, the IDF also has its warts, and there really are difficulties in creating social equality when the population grows and the army doesn’t change proportionately. But this doesn’t mean that mandatory service should be annulled—it means that beyond the IDF, the Israeli government needs to create other avenues of mandatory national service; in the Israel Police, the National Fire and Rescue Authority, the health-care system and the bevy of other social fields starving for manpower. Israeli governments thus far have failed to move in this regard and have quite simply abandoned the IDF to deal alone with mandatory service.
The Israeli public needs to be told the truth: Mandatory service in Israel is the way it is because that’s what is needed, and there really isn’t any other option. And to the Israeli government, it’s important to say: Wake up, we are gradually losing the most important social-military asset we have, and there’s no getting it back once it’s gone.
IDF Col. Ronen Itsik (res.) is a researcher and lecturer in political science and the author of “Behind The Armor: The story of an Israeli soldier,” describing military service and combat situations against terrorist organizations.
This article first appeared in Israel Hayom.