This coming January, Israel’s Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi will end his four-year term of duty, and the process of appointing a successor is currently underway. One of the main challenges facing the new chief of staff will be addressing the signs of erosion of public trust in the military as an institution. These signs of declining public trust originate to some extent in the changing nature of Israeli society, which has increasingly prioritized individual over communal values. Thus, polls indicate public discontent over economic issues, such as military pay and pensions. But they also reflect social issues, such as gender equality and the integration of ultra-Orthodox young men into specific units (affecting the unit’s cohesion), and moral concerns, such as controversies around the rules of engagement in the face of terror threats.
Traditionally, the Israel Defense Forces enjoys the highest rate of public trust of any institution in Israel. However, a survey conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute in October 2021 revealed that public trust in the IDF had dropped to 78% from 90% in 2019. The last time such a decline was recorded was in 2008, following the exposure of significant deficiencies in the IDF’s performance during the Second Lebanon War in 2006.
The graph above compares public trust in the military (78%) to other institutions in Israel (the next highest being the head of state at 58% and the supreme court at 41%). A recent survey shows that, for the first time, almost half of Jewish Israelis support ending the mandatory conscription and transforming the IDF into a professional army; however, this policy of mandatory conscription is highly unlikely to change. To understand how dramatic this finding is, one must trace the roots of the “People’s Army” concept, upon which the IDF has been based since the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948.
When Individualistic Values Challenge the “People’s Army”
Throughout its history, Israel has maintained a universal conscription policy with major exceptions for the Arab and ultra-Orthodox citizenry. Its socio-military model rests on a few principles. First, the structure of the IDF is based on mass conscription, the regular army is relatively small, and the backbone of the ground fighting forces is based on reserve forces who represent about 70% of the IDF forces at full call-up. Second, the IDF is perceived as a key partner in the nation-building process; therefore, in addition to its military missions, it has educational and social roles. Third, the IDF has made an effort to encourage officers and noncommissioned officers to retire at age 45 at the latest and avoid the creation of a military “caste” with its own interests.
The constant reality of impending security threats has given the IDF a high societal position—almost sacred. When military confrontation is a part of the country’s everyday life, military service has been seen consistently over the years as a civic virtue. Furthermore, military service in many cases provides upward mobility for future civilian (and political) careers.
The status of the IDF first began to show cracks in the wake of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, which led the public to examine the IDF’s conduct in a critical light. The First Lebanon War (1982), the Intifada (1987), and multiple operational and training accidents resulting in fatalities during the 1990s have all contributed to reducing the public’s trust in the IDF. But the main reason for the change in the IDF’s status among the public has been the strengthening of individualism at the expense of the collectivist ideology, beginning in the 1980s, as part of the bitter awakening to the socialist ethos of the state’s early years. This has been reflected, to some extent, in the public demand to cut the defense budget and tighten the supervision of military spending. Additionally, the Israeli press developed a more critical approach toward the IDF, while military censorship weakened, and bereaved parents began to loudly question the circumstances of their sons’ deaths.
Explaining the Recent Decline in Public Trust
In the summer of 2021, the government’s announcement of a major increase in pensions for officers and other professional soldiers of the IDF (popularly called the “chief of staff increase”) provoked strong public criticism. The IDF’s justification for this move—to address the problem of retaining those who had been trained in the IDF and were leaving for the private sector—didn’t register with the public. Instead, media articles circulated, noting that with the amount allocated to enlarging the military pensions, the IDF could have doubled the salaries of its conscripts in addition to increasing the motivation for recruitment.
Six months later, the salaries of conscripts were raised by 50%, but the damage was already done, leaving the public with the impression that the IDF does not care about ordinary soldiers and their parents who have to provide their children with supplementary funding.
There are other explanations for the erosion of public trust, including a series of accidents and suicides involving soldiers over the last two years. In one case, a recruit committed suicide after the military police pressured him to serve as an informant. In another, commanders went unpunished for the death of a soldier by a terrorist at pointblank range along the Gaza border, despite the IDF’s investigation concluding that the commanders had been negligent. In both cases, harsh criticism from the bereaved parents received extensive media coverage. This criticism reached a peak in the fall of 2021, with the “the Mothers March,” a new protest movement founded by combatants’ mothers, bereaved families, and IDF disabled soldiers.
What Can Be Done to Restore the Status of the IDF
Chief of Staff Kochavi recently revised the IDF ethos document to include the following statement: “The IDF is the people’s army, subject to the law and the government. Soldiers of the IDF act with the following objectives foremost on their minds: the mission, the values of the IDF, and the security of the state. They act with integrity, diligence, and as models to be emulated.” Kochavi justified this addition by saying that “reverence for public institutions of the state is the backbone of the values that preserve the functioning of the IDF and the public’s trust in the IDF.”
Rhetoric is not sufficient to restore public trust. A few institutional reform steps need to be taken:
First, and above all, transparency. The army often uses the excuse of “security considerations” to not reveal details to the public that could sow demoralization or invite criticism. Even though the military’s ability to hide failures and omissions in the information age is quite limited, the discussions of the annual defense budget are conducted behind closed doors in the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. There is no public transparency of the huge defense outlays of $17.7 billion, which is over 5% of gross domestic product.
Equal burden sharing. A mission of the new government should be to expand national civil service to all citizens, so that those who do not serve in the military can still serve their community as a firefighter or as an assistant in hospitals, retirement homes, schools, and so forth. There is no reason why large and growing segments of population (especially Israeli Arabs and ultra-Orthodox Jews) who do not serve in the army should not contribute to the country in other ways. Requiring national service for all citizens in Israel will reduce the long-standing resentment toward the sectors that do not serve.
Improving the conditions of the conscripts. Recently, there have been increasing reports about inadequate service conditions, including overcrowding in transportation to the bases, lack of food, and even cases of widespread disease in the bases due to improperly stored food. Beyond that, parents often claim that the allowance their children receive from the IDF for clothing and equipment purchases is insufficient. When soldiers are required to jeopardize their life during their military service, adequate basic conditions are the least the army can do for them.
Promotion of gender equality and prevention of sexual harassment in the military. By doing so, women will be motivated to fulfill their ambitions within the military framework. The IDF must work to prevent discrimination against women. Imposing restrictions on women, to keep them away from religious soldiers, violates women’s fundamental rights. In addition, the IDF must work to prevent sexual harassment in the military and to indict those responsible (in 2020 out of 1,542 official complaints of sexual harassment in the IDF, only 31 indictments were filed) in order to increase the public trust.
Finally, credible messaging to the Israeli public. Operation Guardian of the Walls, the May 2021 military campaign against Hamas in Gaza, was an example of a public relations campaign aimed at convincing the public that the results of the operation were excellent, while in practice, the operation’s outcomes were modest. The public recognized this gap in credibility, thus creating mistrust.
The Israeli public continues to see in its military the finest aspects of its people who are expected, in the critical moments of truth of major threats, to fulfill their obligations and provide the country with security. However, for this public trust to be sustained and return to its former levels of 90%, the IDF under its next chief of staff will have to engage in institutional reforms.