The draft of folly

As the efforts to legislate the new draft have finally been crowned with success, we keep being reminded that just as in other cases, the government of Israel in its infinite wisdom, managed once again to combine the worst of all choices to reach a truly bad outcome. It goes without saying that in order to accomplish the original objective, to spread the burden of military service in a more equal way, this law is ineffective and does much too little, if anything, much too late, if at all. It tries to address an issue which today, for all intents and purposes is losing relevance as the population of Israel continues to grow. Compulsory military service is becoming more of a problem than a solution since there is no real need for the increasing number of draftees that become available and by definition, national service is becoming ever more inequitable because the army just cannot accommodate the rising numbers and is becoming more selective.

What is keeping the universal draft alive is the Zionist ethos of all citizens serving the country, an ethos that already has largely been a myth for quite a while since even now only about 50% of those eligible are drafted.

The State of Israel has had no problem for 65 years not drafting Haredim for compulsory service, a population that for has, by and large, no interest in serving. While initially the numbers concerned were small, the natural growth of the Haredi population has turned this group into a sizeable pool of eligible draftees whose exemption could not be ignored anymore. That happened not so much because the army really has a need for them but mostly because Haredim, more than other groups, highlight the lack of equality in the existing system. While the exemption of the Arab population is accepted with relative equanimity and even serves as a convenient excuse for limiting their access to certain government benefits and to discriminate against them, the exemption of the Haredi population is considered abusive. Why so? Not so much because they don’t serve (and thus do not risk their lives for Israel) but because Haredim, as opposed to the Arab population, get benefits without doing service.

The sensible solution to resolving this issue would have been to cut the benefits to the Haredi population gradually and make them contingent upon doing some kind of national service, not necessarily in the military. That would entice them to join the workforce which is a claimed side effect of the new draft law. That approach however is politically problematic since the Haredim are a large constituency who regularly vote en-block and can therefore not be as easily discounted as the Arab population which habitually splits its votes.

A cut in benefits of the Haredim alone would likely have been sufficient to entice a sizeable share of them to do some kind of service. But the government of Israel in it’s present aggressive mood, couldn’t just do that. It didn’t want to touch the Zionist ethos and thus created a fictitious law that would over a period of years attempt to force more Haredim into army service threatening them (just like anybody else) with legal action should too many members of those required to serve by law continue to refuse. The law is a sham and everybody knows that by the time it might have an impact and actually put Haredim in jail, it will not be necessary anymore since the State of Israel has no more need for a universal draft.

The present situation would have been a wonderful opportunity for a joint parliamentary effort to do away once and for all with the long gone Zionist ethos that calls for universal military service and create a system that is based on a professional military and a selective draft where benefits would be handed out only to those who serve. By and large Israelis would have no problem accepting a situation by which only those who want to serve will do so and receive benefits that are not available to those who do not serve.

Once the possibility not to serve is accorded to everybody on an equal basis, nobody will feel being taken advantage of. The difficulties that the state will then have drafting enough of the right people for all the tasks in the military will become an economic issue, like they should be. Once it’s purely a matter of economics, the benefits of peace may become more obvious to the government, a lot more than they are now, with a system where military manpower is available at cut-rate prices, easy to draft and easy to use.

About the Author
The author served in the Prime Minister’s Office as a member of the intelligence community, is a member of the Council for Peace and Security and was a candidate in Labor’s 2012 primary election for the Knesset list
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