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Mandatory IDF service is about values

We must avoid turning the IDF into a mercenary force, lest we fail to properly prepare for the enormous challenges down the road.

An IDF soldier in Judea and Samaria, Aug. 24, 2022. Courtesy: Israel Defense Forces.
An IDF soldier in Judea and Samaria, Aug. 24, 2022. Courtesy: Israel Defense Forces.
Former Israel Defense Forces' Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, head of the Blue and White Party, in Tel Aviv on Feb. 19, 2019. Credit: Tomer Neuberg/Flash90.
Benny Gantz

Israel is facing a variety of national security challenges, from Iran through the Palestinian arena to governance and homefront issues. Since the establishment of the state, the IDF has been the country’s rock that supported it through every chapter: Wars and military campaigns, the settlement of the Negev and the Galilee, the immigrant camps and the coronavirus pandemic.

The IDF is the people’s army, but it should not be taken for granted. As a military that is made up of Israeli society, it must also change along with that society. In recent years, as reported by Israel Hayom, we have seen a continuous decline in enlistment rates. In practice, the IDF has become the army of only half the people. This is not just a demographic issue—it is the result of leadership decisions.

Over the past two years, I have tried to promote a new service model that would be suitable for the future, not the past. It is a model that would ensure the needs of the IDF and our security, encourage contribution to the state, boost dialogue between groups of society and increase cohesion.

We sought to introduce a plan that would have every citizen subject to a minimum period of mandatory national service, with those who join the IDF and its fighting force getting significantly higher compensation. We had already started promoting projects and talking with nonprofits, security groups and charity organizations to increase and set more generous financial backing schemes for soldiers. Unfortunately, elements in the outgoing government blocked the moves due to political and personal agendas. This might turn out to be a missed opportunity of historic proportions.

In the emerging government, it seems the plan is to kick the can down the road. But we must keep in mind the following: Israel is not faced with a choice of “one half will study Torah and the other will serve in the IDF,” but with the danger that over time we will have induction centers left with scarce recruits. Mandatory service is a matter of values, not just performing a legal duty. Israel is a small country with enormous challenges. Breaching the contract between the state and its citizens by kicking the can down the road could create a time bomb when it comes to Israel’s security and socioeconomic challenges.

A professional military comprising only career officers is not a solution. Everyone familiar with the numbers, the operational reality and the situation in the world understands this. Turning the IDF into an army of mercenaries is a security danger and a tremendous blow to national resilience because anyone who has served—even for a short time—feels a connection to the country and its values.

When I was chief of staff, there was a decision to cut the defense budget, and we had to let go of career officers and carry out cutbacks. There was one area where I said we could not afford to cut back: the Havat Hashomer base. I said at the time that the IDF needed not only to fight but to make sure there was someone to fight for in the first place.

Amid new data and political measures that could further weaken the IDF and society, we should stop and ask ourselves: Why and for what reason are we forfeiting our security and social resilience?

Defense Minister Lt. Gen. (ret.) Benny Gantz is the leader of the Blue and White party and a former IDF chief of staff.

Originally published by Israel Hayom.

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