IDI's annual conference on National Security and Democracy opened with a focus on the question of whether the current IDF model of service is sustainable, what other models should be considered and included a session on public attitudes towards the IDF. The conference is held in partnership with the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung.
Below is a summary of the main points made during the conference's first day.
MK Ram Ben Barak, Chair of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee:
“When you look at the fact that 40% [of young people] do not serve in the military and at the actual needs of the IDF, then it would seem that something different is needed. I would not allow the IDF and the security agencies to decide on their own who they induct , but I would make national civilian service more widely available. This requires us to consider an essential element that we do not have today, namely, that the military needs to be opened up to all our civilians. If Mohammed from Kafr Manda wants to be a combat pilot, he should be allowed to do so, because he is an Israeli citizen. The measure of citizenship is that if someone betrays our country, the Shin Bet catches them regardless of whether they are Jewish or Arab. The opportunities [of military service] should be open to all, just as obligations apply to all.”
Responding to the question of whether he can envision a sustainable model that allows all populations to serve, Ben Barak answered:
“Within the Jewish state there are two million citizens who are not Jewish, and everyone should have an equal opportunity to do everything. You cannot place restrictions on people because of their religion or ethnicity within their state. I am not afraid of this prospect; it will do much good. The IDF is Israel’s best force for social integration. Imagine that in the United States, Jews were not allowed to serve in the military. We [in Israel] are now strong enough for this. They want to be part of this state; we cannot have a situation in which extremists run the country.”
Yohanan Plesner, President of the Israel Democracy Institute:
“For the first time, a majority of the Israeli public supports transitioning to a professional military. Anyone familiar with the subject knows that there is no such option available, but this is the logical response of the public to the situation in which we now find ourselves.
In part, addressing the current unstable conscription model in the short term should be done in two ways: First, soldiers in their mandatory service period should be better compensated, without making the IDF a professional army. And second, it should be accepted that the ultra-Orthodox population will not serve in the IDF in large numbers, and thus the age of exemption from military service should be lowered. Unfortunately, this second step has been taken only haltingly, and there is now an opportunity to correct this.
“We need a new model that takes into account the need for professionalization and to attract the best personnel, as well as the impracticability of having a fully professional military. This will be a hybrid model; it will not be ideal, and will require work.”
MK Alon Schuster, Deputy Minister of Defense:
“It is important to maintain high-quality personnel, both in terms of quantity and quality … We are truly concerned about the prospect of requiring people from this socioeconomic stratum to move away from the center of the country [due to relocation of IDF bases to the south], that they will not want to go. Our task is to find the way to expand the recruitment pool in the periphery, and thus gain an advantage in terms of personnel as well as improving solidarity and equality.
“The path we need to take must include giving the IDF priority in identifying, recruiting, and compensating personnel, as well as expanding the available service tracks. We must continue to shorten the universal mandatory service period, while other service tracks can be made longer, on a voluntary basis and with commensurate pay, and rewards should be provided for the most essential personnel.”
Amir Reshef, Deputy Director of the Budget Department, Ministry of Finance:
“Unequivocally, we are unable to compete with wages in the private sector, which continue to climb every quarter. The [defense] challenge and Zionist sentiment allow us to retain people on lower wages relative to the labor market, because of the immense sense of reward and challenge.
“According to the surveys, Gen-Z is not interested in economic and employment security. If there were different findings, then we would stay with the pensions model, but public discourse tells us that we need to think of another model. Undoubtedly, pensions are not what young people are looking for.
“The IDF should ask itself why public opinion has reached its current state, rather than just saying that it is being given a bad name by the press and the Finance Ministry. It should look at itself and ask why public opinion is where it is now.”
Adv. Itai Ofir, Legal Counsel to the Ministry of Defense:
“The challenge of retaining brainpower in the IDF is a critical one, which is connected to maintaining our security and the IDF’s move south. Today, it is easier to retain people in Tel Aviv than in other locations, but these [intelligence] units seem still to be the best school [for those who want to work in hi-tech], and thus the concern relates not to the initial period of mandatory service, nor to those who view military service as their life’s work, but to those in between. We are in a delicately balanced situation, but we all share the same goal.”
Major General (res.) Udi Adam, former Director General of the Ministry of Defense
On the preferred model of service for the IDF: “I believe that if we shift to a professional army, this will inevitably mean creating a mediocre army—which the State of Israel cannot allow.” “On the contrary, we need to increase [military and national] service, even if it is claimed that we have a surplus of soldiers. The contribution of service to our normative values is not something that can be quantified in numbers. I would expand national civilian service as a mandatory requirement for all citizens, and those who cannot or should not serve in the military should serve in the fire service, in Magen David Adom (ambulance service), in education. This will improve our society.”
Regarding complaints about inadequate conditions for soldiers, and the announcement of pay increases for soldiers performing mandatory service:
“Today, soldiers receive more-than-reasonable conditions in terms of clothing and equipment, much better than in the past, but their living stipends are very low. Parents cannot be asked to cover everything, and soldiers need money to go out when they come home, they need some pocket money. These sums have always been low, and over the last decade they have failed to keep up [with the cost of living]. I won’t talk about the timing, it should have happened a long time ago, but it’s the right thing, and I think they should get even more.”
On equal opportunities in the IDF: “No question, we do not provide equal opportunities. The likelihood that someone from Ofakim or Sderot will make it to Unit 8200 is tens of percent lower [than someone from the center of the country], at least. Part of the rationale for moving the technological sections such as the Computing Directorate and the Intelligence Corps to the Negev is to provide opportunities for interaction between them and populations in the periphery, though this does not mean that all high-school graduates in Be’er Sheva will immediately be drafted to 8200. Action needs to be taken: Today, the technological units are more in demand, yet most of their recruits come from the region of Ra’anana, Kfar Saba, Tel Aviv, and Ramat Hasharon.”
Regarding service by Arab Israelis Israelis:
“As director general of the Ministry of Defense, we invested great efforts, via the Defense and Society Department, to reach as many Christian and Muslim schools and populations as possible, because in my opinion, there is no reason why they shouldn’t serve. Performing national service can bring them closer, not to Zionism necessarily, but to serving the country. We are failing there [in the Arab sector] because the state has given up on it; look at what is happening in the Negev and in the north. Today, to get a recruitment officer into a school in a Muslim Arab town you need approval from the religious leadership, otherwise you won’t be able to. We have lost a lot of the population, and this needs to be amended.”
On the claims that the IDF leadership is wary of making any moral or values-based statements:
“It is the responsibility of all officers, certainly senior officers, to say things as truthfully as possible. The Elor Azaria incident—I have no idea how it was blown up into what it became; the bottom line is this was an individual who did something forbidden, he should have been punished, not embraced, and this should have been clearly stated. If it is true that the General Staff is now afraid, then we should check who it is that constitutes the General Staff.”
Regarding erosion of public trust in the IDF:
“Maybe everything was absolutely fine with the submarine affair—then why not investigate it? If there is an incident that seems suspicious, it should be investigated. If the defense system adopts transparency vis-à-vis the public, then public trust will grow. I’m hardly an objective observer, but the defense system has far more checks and balances that other state systems. In any human system, it’s possible for people to steal here and there, but the checks and balances in the defense system are such that these things are revealed in the end. Now we need the system to be transparent.”
Brigadier General Dado Bar-Kalifa, Commander of the IDF Sinai Division and of the IDF War College, participated in a conversation with Dr. Idit Shafran Gittleman on “Where is the IDF Fighting Spirit Headed?”
“There are considerable challenges for the fighting spirit. Some of these have to do with the nature of the recruits who enter the IDF today, some can be attributed to social media, and some of them are entirely in our minds. The role of the commanders is to talk about it, to confront it, and to maintain fighting spirit in the ranks, because if we do not, it will dissipate.”
Regarding the tension between ethical conduct in combat and commitment to the mission:
“There is a tension between values, human life, and seeing the mission through, which commanders have to manage … This is a complex discipline, as the world of war is complex. I see no contradiction between combat ethics and commitment to the mission, and in some cases they even complement one another.”
Regarding standing rules of engagement:
“In some cases, they have not been clear enough, but it’s a matter of record that these have been amended. In general, the rules of engagement are well suited to the operational activities that soldiers are required to perform on a daily basis. In war, we need to explain to soldiers that they are no longer on routine patrol, to ‘reboot their operating system,’ because in many cases the choice to play it safe and be careful is only a choice when it’s an option—and in war, it is no longer an option. Standing orders for opening fire are complicated because life is complicated. If someone throws a stone at you, do you shoot to kill or not? You need more details. But do they offer a response for a complex reality? I think they do.”
On soldiers’ stipends, he said:
“The IDF has made the right decision to differentiate between front-line and rearguard fighters. It has come late, but it’s good that it’s happening. This is not a salary, it’s a living stipend, because if we call it a salary, then no salary is enough for what they are doing. They’re putting their lives on the line.”
On the issue of social media:
“The issue of social media relates to how it is used: it is a question of quantity and type of use. It can destroy fighting spirit or build it up. The challenge is how you as a commander conduct yourself in response to events of different kinds … In the near future, we will see regulation of social media not only in the IDF, but in broader society, the imposition of a code of ethics. I think this will happen in the military as well, because this is a tool that has been created and is developing into areas such that we will have to clearly decide what we think about it, and how we act accordingly.”
On gender equality in the IDF:
“This is something that will take years; the General Staff will not become 50-50 [men and women] overnight. Our job is to ensure that the people’s army will accelerate these processes, and today we are pulling in that direction. It takes an officer 15–20 years to become a colonel, yet there is an expectation that this will all be solved today. It will take time, because for someone to become a colonel you need to wait 20 years.”
Attorney General Dr. Avichai Mandelblit spoke about the attorney general’s role in defense matters, and said that, “it is part of national security. In today’s warfare, we need to take into account additional, more modern fronts—the legitimacy and legal fronts, and the media and public opinion fronts. In the end, operational legal counsel is part of the national effort to win the war. The legal aspect is also particularly significant in the Security Cabinet, and therefore I make sure I attend those meetings in order to give the decision-makers the full picture and assist them. The bottom line is that legal counsel is in the interest of the political leadership and the military leadership, and they want to receive it. For example, when I was the IDF military advocate general, it was the chief of staff who decided that operational legal counsel was required at the division level, and not the military advocate general.”
In a similar vein, regarding claims that legal counsel restricts commanders, the attorney general made clear that acting in a way that does not violate the law is first and foremost in the interest of commanders themselves. Furthermore, they are sometimes far stricter than is required by law, for ethical reasons or for other reasons, such as maintaining legitimacy and preventing fighting being cut short.
Asked about the increasingly central role played by the Security Cabinet over the years, Attorney General Mandelblit responded that this is a positive trend, as this is a body that can develop greater professionalism and expertise, and a forum in which it is easier to hold confidential discussions while talking openly and honestly. Maintaining this freedom of debate is important in order to prevent voices being silenced, but even more so because in the end, the government operates as a cabinet in which responsibility is shared, and its members need to stand behind the decisions made and the positions agreed on. The stronger status of the Security Cabinet has also become necessary because of changes in the nature of warfare. Whereas in the past, the government could assemble and simply declare war, in today’s asymmetrical warfare the situation is totally different and requires greater confidentiality, in order to maintain capabilities of surprise and subterfuge. Thus, it is proper that these discussions are held in a smaller and more secretive forum. This is why it was important to amend the Basic Law: The Government, to enable the cabinet—and not just the entire government—to make decisions about going to war or conducting significant military operations.
Regarding external criticism of the IDF, from public commissions such as the Turkel Commission, he noted that he is “very much in favor of review and criticism of all public bodies, including the State Attorney’s Office, the attorney general, and the mechanisms that oversee and review the IDF. But such critique needs to be balanced, and not made in such a way that paralyzes the body in question, but instead helps it improve its performance.”
When asked about the findings of repeated opinion surveys of soldiers and the general public, according to which it is widely believed that legal advisors are restricting the IDF’s action in a way that endangers soldiers, the Attorney General responded that he is sorry to hear that, and that it would seem that this view (which he thinks is misguided) is also influenced by deeper developments affecting Israeli society. However, were people to talk directly with the commanders and decision-makers to whom this legal counsel is provided, they would find that they greatly appreciate the service they receive, and that it actually helps them to make better and more accurate decisions. In the final analysis, making legal aspects clearer is very much in the interest of commanders, and is designed to help them win in combat. In any case, the attorney general emphasized, “we will continue to do our job of helping the government, any government, and the Military Advocate General Corps will do its job of helping the chief of staff, any chief of staff, to go on winning wars, and helping the government succeed in its actions.”
Regarding the International Criminal Court in The Hague, and the decision of the previous ICC prosecutor, toward the end of her term in office, to open an investigation into possible war crimes by Israel, he said:
“We stand by our position, which was of course presented in a detailed document I published around two years ago, according to which the ICC lacks any jurisdiction with regard to the State of Israel or the territories of the West Bank and Gaza. Additionally, we have a strong and independent legal system, and thus in any case, this a situation in which the ICC should refrain from interfering, based on the founding principles that led to its establishment, including the principle of complementarity.”
In response to a question about the IDF’s sphere of operations in the northern arena, the attorney general replied: “I cannot get into details, but we certainly intend to win the war, any war, and we are prepared to fight on any front, in the north, in the south, anywhere. Certainly, in light of the threats we face there, our preparations are aimed at winning the war, with everything that entails—of course, all in accordance with the laws of combat that we spoke about. But it should be remembered that these laws also allow us to act against the challenges we face there.”