The Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security

The IDF has chosen to enjoy the advantages of both a volunteer military and a conscript “people’s army,” by piecemeal combination of elements of both

Debates about the advantages and disadvantages of the IDF turning into an all-volunteer force have taken place since the 1980s. However, conscription to the IDF today is very different from its form until the 1980s. The IDF has become a hybrid structure combining elements of professional and mandatory service models. It is neither an all-volunteer force nor a universal mandatory conscription force, nor is it an army in which one contingent of volunteers is juxtaposed next to a conscript-based one. 

Developments over the past two or three decades reveal that a new model maximizing the benefits of the two systems – providing a necessary mass of personnel and a force of specialized military professionals – has emerged in Israel. The IDF has adapted its model by “grafting” onto conscription arrangements, allowing it to enjoy the many benefits of a fully-fledged voluntary force alongside those of military professionalism. This emergent model, a form of selective conscription, is centered on a multiplicity of organizational routes and roles involving different lengths of service, material and non-material rewards, professional development, and prospects for civilian employment. More widely, the model represents an attempt to meet both operational demands as well as domestic, social, economic, and political expectations.

The Model. Israel’s model is based on five interlocking principles. The first principle is selective recruitment, by which exemptions are awarded to various groups such as Arabs or Haredi individuals. This has led to a situation where barely half of each male cohort is drafted into the IDF. 

Second, early discharges account for a significant minority of soldiers who are let go before completing their term of service. The relative ease of obtaining early discharge stems from the fact that the IDF has a surfeit of personnel in its rear echelons. Selective conscription and early discharge allow the IDF to deal with hidden unemployment. 

The third principle, extensions of length of service, involves multiple programs that are designed to provide training in specialized skills needed in intelligence, telecommunications and some combat roles. To join such programs, individuals agree to lengthen their term of service for a few months or years, organically linking additional periods of training to conscription. In addition, each year about 1,000 soldiers study at the IDF’s expense for degrees in the sciences, engineering, and social sciences. 

A closely interlaced principle woven into conscription entails forms of volunteering. To enter some roles and units, potential recruits must compete with other candidates. For instance, draftees must compete to be accepted into elite infantry brigades and the special forces, or into pilot and naval commander courses. They must agree in advance to serve longer than the standard length of military duty. Women who volunteer for positions such as border defense or the artillery are obliged to serve as long as their male colleagues, too. 

Fifth, to motivate soldiers in voluntary positions, the IDF offers material and non-material incentives such as different salaries for conscripts (in combat, support, and rear-echelon roles) or special berets, insignia, and certificates. Another incentive involves the convertibility of military into civilian skills such as those obtained in telecommunications and intelligence-related military posts. 

Together, these principles provide the system with elasticity, since each principle is adjustable based on changing circumstances and needs.

This hybrid model has emerged to meet three sets of challenges. 

Security Threats. After downsizing many formations, the IDF has augmented others to meet Israel’s security threats (mainly confronting Iran and its militia allies). Forces that have been beefed-up include those that employ advanced firepower and intelligence systems, which require lengthy training for specialized military skills. Other units that have undergone impressive organizational growth are intelligence, missile defense, telecommunications, cyber and drone units, the Home Front Command, military law centers, and media relations units. What has emerged is a military based on a minimal mass of troops alongside new specialized roles and units. Conscripts are a central element in these units. 

However, the emergence of Israel’s system of hybrid conscription stems not only from operational factors but also from market and social considerations. 

The Market Army. Like other armed forces, prompted by Neo-Liberal ideas the IDF has had to meet demands for greater efficiency (not only effectiveness) resulting in what Yagil Levy calls a “market army”. The IDF is challenged to compete for personnel in a competitive market, especially in the high-tech fields. In this regard, conscription is essential. It allows the IDF first crack at talented youngsters, and assures a steady supply of recruits that the IDF is keenly interested in. The IDF exempts or discharges those who do not fit its needs.

The cultural effects of what may be called a “market army” extend further to the motivation and retention of conscripts. The fundamental change which has taken place is that soldiers have come to expect a “good deal” from the army; manifested in their ability to choose preferred units and to bargain over the incentives they are offered. Conscripts today  have expectations for “meaningful service” (sherut mashmauti). 

“A People’s Army.” At the same time, because recruitment is not truly universal, the IDF has worked hard to advance a self-portrait of diversity and multiculturalism, in order to maintain its image as a true “people’s army.” To this end, the IDF constantly seeks to place media stories about troops from diverse social groups such as new immigrants, Moslems, Ultra-Orthodox Jews, women, Christians, or soldiers from disadvantaged backgrounds. 

In addition, the IDF recruits many individuals not suited for military service only to give them an early discharge. Despite the economic costs of this, the IDF does so to maintain a façade of fair and universal conscription (with high percentages of a given cohort). 

Conclusion: Legitimacy and Flexibility

To gain legitimacy, the IDF has chosen to enjoy the advantages of both a volunteer military and a conscript “people’s army,” by piecemeal combination of elements of both. It can portray itself as a melting pot and maintain the right to select youngsters for service. By instituting selective conscription, it both maintains Israeli society’s myths and desires for universal conscription that encompasses various social groups, utilizing them in an effective and efficient manner and it allows youngsters choice through multiple routes of service in interesting and challenging positions. 

The multiple service routes are the core of the system’s flexibility. They capture talent and skill management (for operational reasons) within a regime of legitimacy that adapts to societal changes. On the one hand, the IDF pays a price for being “forced” to maintain conscription, and on the other hand it meets social expectations about inclusiveness, diversity, and treatment of soldiers – while taking the correct measures to obtain quality manpower for meeting new threats. Finally, the system is flexible and constantly experimented with to answer both security challenges and social expectations.  

Note: This article is based on work carried out with Elisheva Rosman-Stollman and Eitan Shamir.

JISS Policy Papers are published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family.

Photo: IDF