Is Israel’s Military Fraying?

by August 2023
Army boots hang on a wire during a protest of reservists near the Ministry of Defense in Tel Aviv, July 2023. Photo credit: REUTERS/Amir Cohen

An Israeli officer in the air force reserves writes an anguished letter to his commanding officer. In his late 50s and thus no longer required by law to do reserve duty, he has nevertheless continued to report to his base weekly to help plan future operations. Now, owing to the government’s judicial reform proposals, he can no longer do so. 

>>  Insight from Israel: Read more from Eran Lerman

At a protest rally in the city of Modi’in, an Israeli woman tells her story. As a mother of small children she is exempt from military reserve duty but still joins her search and rescue team on a regular basis. This summer she informed her unit that the politics of this government prevent her from continuing to serve. 

These are among the stories in Israel this summer as the protest movement against the Netanyahu government continues. The protest movement claims to represent 10,000 who refuse to continue serving in the reserves (which would be roughly 2 percent of Israel’s reserve corps). They intend to pressure the government to drop its judicial reform bills in the Knesset, which they see as damaging Israel’s democracy. 

The reservists’ threat is significant beyond the numbers. First, many of those refusing reserve duty are air force officers, including many experienced fighter pilots. The IDF high command worries that the pattern may spread to the ranks of those still required by law to serve. 

Second, the protest calls into question the concept of the “People’s Army” as Israel’s military was described and shaped by Prime Minister and Defense Minister David Ben-Gurion. To him and succeeding generations of commanders and soldiers, the army was not only a tool of war and deterrence: it was to be the forge of the reborn nation’s spirit of solidarity and cohesion. The reserve units, bringing together several times a year people from various walks of life and different professions, were the key to this vision. The only way Israel could match the large standing armies of hostile neighbors was to rely on early warning and an efficient call-up system (to some extent learned, interestingly enough, from the Swiss). Israel’s most famous battles, such as the taking of Jerusalem in 1967 or the crossing of the Suez Canal in 1973, were fought and won by reserve brigades and divisions. 

Moreover, with officers retiring at age 45 and taking up other careers, the IDF was safe from the danger of becoming a closed caste, as happened in all too many countries over the years. Always slightly chaotic and unkempt, but dedicated and committed, the reserve-based fighting forces of the IDF came to be seen as a true reflection of Israeli society as a whole. 

In fact, the “People’s Army” has long been more of a slogan than a reality. To begin with, Arab citizens of Israel, roughly one quarter of the current 18-year old cohort, are not required to serve (although a small number volunteer to do so). And among those eligible for the draft – including two small minority groups, the Druze and the Circassians – the actual rate of enlistment is at 69 percent for men and 55 percent for women. The exemptions given are largely for religious reasons. All Orthodox women are entitled to declare that they cannot serve, and so too are Haredi (“ultra-Orthodox”) men, in order to immerse in religious study. Others are exempt for medical reasons or because of their criminal record. Thus, just about half of all young Israelis enlist. By 2050, as the Haredi population grows, the numbers are likely to drop to about 40 percent. 

Deep changes in Israel’s socio-economic dynamics have invaded the debate on the “People’s Army.” As it happens, those who serve in the highly technological components tend to be identified with the well-to-do elites – whether air force pilots and planners, those who join the special forces, or the computer geeks of the IDF intelligence units and cyber operations. 

Supporters of the government’s reform castigate this protest as an elitist attack – a “military coup” – against a duly elected government. On the other hand, the protesters, who include many former military and security leaders, accuse Prime Minister Netanyahu of destroying or at least fraying the cohesion of the military. 

On August 11, at an urgent meeting with Netanyahu, Defense Minister Gallant (a former major general, who served in Israel’s equivalent of the Navy SEALs before commanding ground formations) and the leaders of Israel’s security establishment warned the prime minister. Even if the proper answer is “not yet,” there are worrying signs, they said, that the reservists’ protest is in fact degrading certain combat capabilities – particularly in the air force, even if the full impact will be fully felt over weeks and months, not days. The absence of leading pilots, planners, and command post officers in air operations, the gaps in specific intelligence capabilities, and the absence, in special forces units, of veteran combat officers and commanders – who regularly came in, often on a weekly basis, long after they were no longer obliged to do so by law – will be increasingly felt.

The meeting reportedly grew stormy, as Netanyahu railed against the notion of the military telling the state what to do rather than the other way around. He accused the commanders of leaking damaging data to the press. Their response was that it was their duty not to hide – even from the public – the troubling indications that they now witness.

As the debate continues in Israel’s cabinet and in the streets, two things are clear. First, the cherished vision of the IDF “as it once was” has been showing signs of wear and tear for some time, well before the judicial reform issues brought the tensions into sharper focus. Now the fissures are increasingly visible. 

As the nature of the threat changed, however, so did the level of dependence upon the reserves. It has been more than 40 years since IDF armored formations met enemy tanks in battle, fighting the Syrians on Lebanese soil in 1982. Fighting terror groups and “hybrid” guerillas forces such as Hizbullah and Hamas do not require the massed formations and sheer numbers that fighting Arab armies did, and much can be done based on the regular servicemen’s brigades. The number of Israelis who continued to be called up, or volunteered to keep on coming, dropped dramatically over the last few decades – in fact, less than 5 percent are now actually called up. 

Nevertheless, some elements of the reserves remain crucial in a future all-out conflict. Specifically, the Air Force continues to rely on old hands reporting for duty, flying missions, training (and inspiring) the younger generation, planning missions and manning operation rooms. There are segments in which their contribution is almost irreplaceable. 

Second, on the question of the potential damage to Israel’s deterrence posture from the reservists’ protest, the answer is “not yet.” Lebanese Hizbullah’s Hassan Nasrallah has reacted to the Israeli media reports by describing the IDF as being “at the lowest point in its history.” On the other hand, Hizbullah has not shown interest in escalating to a new round of fighting. 

Finally, the protestors are responding to more than the government’s judicial reform bills; there is the open wound of inequality in service. The exemption for Arab citizens is understood, given their ethnic bonds with the neighbors. But the mass exemption for the growing Haredi population is part of what motivates these protests. 

“Burden sharing” is one of the protesters’ slogans. To them, the traditional exemptions and subsidies for the Haredim are not sustainable. Whether this government can accommodate this aspect of protests while preserving its unity remains an open question. 

>>  Insight from Israel: Read more from Eran Lerman

Eran Lerman
Col. (ret.) Dr. Eran Lerman is a former senior intelligence officer. He served as Israel’s deputy national security adviser (2009–2015), and prior to that as director, AJC Israel and ME office (2001–2009). He is currently the vice president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security and a lecturer at Shalem College. @EranLerman
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