A New Social Contract with the IDF? On the Benefits of Waiting to Decide

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The need for expanded IDF service is clear—but the options for achieving this are rife with political contention and economic consequences. The time to rethink long-term security arrangements is after the fog of war lifts, under newly elected leaders with broad public legitimacy.

Photo by Yaakov NaumiFlash90

The October 7 terror attack shattered a number of widely held security conceptions in Israel. Two and a half months later, it appears that we have to examine much more than just the stance taken by the State of Israel toward Hamas, or the approach of containment that was applied along the border with the Gaza Strip. Indeed, we need to reassess the relationship between the IDF and Israeli society. This reassessment is currently being manifested in at least three concrete issues demanding the attention of decision-makers: increasing the number of combat troops; the length of mandatory military service; and the military draft in the Haredi sector. These three issues are of course inter-related, but each has its own characteristics.

Regarding the length of military service, it would seem that the accepted viewpoint is that the proposal to considerably shorten mandatory service—which was already agreed upon between the Ministry of Finance and the Ministry of Defense—will now be shelved. At least when it comes to combat soldiers, it is reasonable to assume that not only will service not be shortened, it is likely to be extended. Increasing the length of military service will have a major impact on the economy, mainly because it delays the entry of so many young adults into higher education and the workforce. According to current estimates, every month added to military service translates into a reduction of around two billion shekels per year in the country’s GDP. Lengthening service by three or four months beyond what was previously planned will thus have huge economic consequences at a time when fears are already rife of a looming economic crisis.

There is no doubt that lengthening the service of combat soldiers is a necessary step, as IDF commanders believe that they will need a larger pool of combat personnel than they currently have. To increase the size of its combat units, and in addition to lengthening mandatory service, the IDF will also have to delay the release of soldiers from reserve duty, raise the number of reserve duty days served each year, and increase the number of women in combat units. All these changes will have considerable social implications. Expanding the scale of reserve duty will place an additional burden on a relatively small group, representing just a small percentage of the service-age population. Opening up additional combat units to female soldiers is also a step of no small social significance. Despite broad support for women serving in combat roles, an expansion is likely to arouse opposition among those who are less supportive.   In the past, we have even seen threats from certain population groups that if it is implemented, they would no longer serve in the military, suggesting a great deal of social tension could arise in this realm.

Some of the need for combat soldiers could be met by significantly increasing recruitment among ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) Jews, who typical do not serve in the IDF, devoting themselves instead to Torah study. Here, too, Israel’s leaders face some very difficult decisions. The attempt by the Haredi parties to pass a law granting sweeping exemptions from military service to Haredi men was met with fierce public opposition even before the war, and this legislation has clearly now been taken off the table. What tools can be used to advance the draft of Haredim to the IDF? Force? Economic pressure? Setting ambitious recruitment targets? These questions require political answers, but they are also all strongly affected by public sentiment regarding military service by Haredim, including within the Haredi public, and this issue will again be the subject of lively public debate.

These three examples demonstrate that major decisions need to be made regarding the personnel requirements of the IDF. All these topics are currently being discussed, and Israel’s political and military leadership is laying the groundwork to announce decisions in these realms. Given the importance of these issues, it is best not to rush into these decisions. Certainly, if the IDF urgently needs more personnel in order to win the current war, then this should be addressed on a short-term basis. But decisions with long-term implications, affecting the future of the country for many years to come, should not be made right now.

There are two reasons why they should be delayed:

The first is substantive. There is an obvious advantage to making decisions after due consideration and the proper assessment of military needs, and not in the fog of a war. After the trauma of October 7 and while battle is still raging on, it is very possible that decisions will be made based on fear rather than on an in-depth assessment of defense needs. As long as the longer-term security arrangements vis-à-vis the Gaza Strip remain unclear, we cannot properly assess the scale of personnel required by the IDF.

No less important is the issue of public legitimacy. It would be improper for the political leaders and military commanders, who so recently failed to ensure the security of Israel’s citizens, should make long-term decisions affecting the very areas in which their failure was so evident. After the war, it is likely that the military leadership will be changed, and that elections will be held in which the country’s citizens can choose new representatives. Decisions on these critical issues should be made by the incoming leadership, which will hold broad public legitimacy.


This article was first published in the Jerusalem Post.