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January 8, 2019 9:10 am

Why Don’t Israeli Children Want to Serve in Combat Units?

avatar by Yoav Limor / JNS.org

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Israeli soldiers conduct a search for Palestinian suspects of a terror attack in the West Bank city of Ramallah, December 10, 2018. Six Israelis were injured in the drive-by shooting attack near Ofra. Photo: FLASH90.

JNS.orgThe IDF held its annual motivation poll last November for ‎potential recruits in an effort to gauge their willingness to join combat ‎units. The results, which are presented here for the first time, were ‎very troubling: Only 64 percent of potential recruits said they would be ‎willing to consider combat service. ‎

This was indicative of a consistent trend: In 2010, the motivation ‎survey found that 80 percent of respondents were willing to join combat ‎units. This number dropped to 71 percent in 2015 and 69 percent in 2016. The ‎abysmal results of 2017 made the IDF decide to both shelve the ‎results and stop using the survey as a key index. ‎

One can dispute the scientific value this survey had in the first ‎place or whether it truly represents reality. Most 17-year-olds have ‎other things on their minds — like school, their social lives, and traveling ‎overseas. Military service is present in the background, but hardly ‎takes priority. The closer it gets, however, the higher their motivation ‎becomes, and most of those who enlist in the IDF want to contribute ‎and experience a meaningful service. ‎

Still, this is a hot-button issue. Even if the motivation poll is ‎scientifically unsound, it has been carried out for years, and its data has ‎always been conclusive, so ignoring it could be nothing short of ‎catastrophic. Unfortunately, the military is the only one currently ‎troubled by these findings. This issue is getting no attention on a ‎national level, and the only ones paying attention are a handful of ‎lawmakers on the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense ‎Committee.‎

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Much will be said about defense and security in the weeks leading up ‎to the April 9 election, but only a few candidates, if any, will ‎know how to address the various challenges the IDF faces — from the ‎number and quality of recruits to the duration of their service and the ‎nature of the standing army, which is itself facing a personnel crisis. ‎

The IDF has no problem filling up combat units, but it does have a ‎problem getting quality recruits to voluntarily enlist in certain units. ‎In the past, combat ranks were far more robust, but they have been ‎steadily shrinking, partially because mandatory service has been cut ‎from 36 to 32 months.

Next year, combat service will be cut to 28 ‎months, and while the system can balance itself out, this is a process ‎that takes time. Implementing the second cut too soon could prove ‎devastating and the IDF’s Personnel Directorate warns it could deal ‎the combat units a crippling blow.‎

Members of the top military echelon have been racking their brains ‎on how to deal with the slump in motivation. The struggle, they ‎say, is real: In the absence of a true existential threat, Israeli youth ‎feel less of a need to protect the homeland, and while elite units like the ‎Golani and Givati brigades still enjoy an air of glory, the real prestige ‎now lies with Military Intelligence, the cyber units, air defenses, and ‎the Homefront Command.‎

It is hard to blame the recruits. Modern Israeli society sanctifies the ‎individual over the collective, and “I” takes great precedence over “we.” ‎Today’s youth want to be rich and famous, something the cyber units — via a ‎future career in the high-tech sector — can provide, but Golani cannot. ‎The education system takes great pride in the increase in the number ‎of students interested in the sciences, and rightfully so, but on the flip ‎side, these best and brightest have little interest in combat service. ‎

The military, however, has the power to make recruits join ‎combat units, as assignments are determined by medical profile and ‎military needs first, and recruits’ preferences second. This results in ‎thousands of disgruntled youths each year, who dreamed of joining ‎Military Intelligence and find themselves performing maintenance on ‎tanks instead, as the IDF needs them on the ground, not focused on ‎a computer screen.

Fostering a change is critical for Israel’s defense interests. If you want to maintain a ‎quality military that wins conflicts, then you must have quality, highly-‎motivated troops in all units. The foundations for this lie at home and in the ‎education system.

The IDF is doing what it can: Combat soldiers’ ‎salaries have been increased and combat service makes them eligible ‎for a wide range of substantial benefits in civilian life, such as school ‎grants and housing subsidies, but still, a holistic solution is required ‎on a national level.‎

The motivation to serve in combat units is only one aspect of the ‎personnel issues plaguing the IDF. The standing army faces similar ‎issues, as illustrated in a recent report by Military Ombudsman Maj. ‎Gen. ‎‎(res.) Yitzhak Brik, warning that various ‎logistical, training, and ‎personnel issues have ‎dramatically eroded the Ground Forces’ ability ‎to ‎effectively wage war. Recent years have seen the IDF undergo a series of streamlining ‎processes that have made it hard for it to keep quality officers, ‎especially junior officers, in its ranks.‎

The changing nature of career service has also taken its toll: In the ‎past, people searched for tenure, somewhere they could work until ‎they retired, but today’s job market is much more dynamic. People ‎change jobs every year or two. A company commander whose tour is ‎over seeks new challenges. The best and the brightest want to ‎be doctors, engineers, and architects, and the IDF is in competition ‎with companies that offer much better conditions. ‎

The weaker socioeconomic echelons also have alternatives. A ‎non-commissioned officer serving in an emergency warehouse can ‎easily find work in a factory and be home every day for dinner ‎without working weekends or getting phone calls in the middle of the ‎night. If we want the IDF’s emergency warehouses to function ‎properly, we have to make sure that they are filled with both quality ‎supplies and quality personnel to run them. ‎

The issue of motivation to serve in the military, especially in its ‎combat units, will not be part of the 2019 election campaign. Hamas, ‎Hezbollah, and Iran are sexier topics that generate headlines and ‎garner votes. The politicians will leave the IDF to figure things out for ‎itself — as long as it continues winning.‎

Yoav Limor is a veteran Israeli journalist and columnist for Israel Hayom.

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