Military Trends

Naftali Bennett, The IDF, And Israel’s Future

12.25.12 6:00 PM ET

According to the polls, Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home party will be the third largest in Israel’s upcoming elections. Last Thursday, when interviewed on Israel’s Channel 2, Bennett said: "If I receive an order to evict a Jew from his house and expel him, personally, my conscience wouldn't allow it." Bennett has an impressive track record—he served in the Israeli Special Forces and holds the rank of Major and in 2005, he sold his anti-fraud software company, Cyota, for $145 million. He represents the new savvy settler—right-wing national religious Zionist meets start up nation.

Bennett’s remarks are telling because they embody the shifts that are reshaping the makeup and numbers of those who enlist and serve in the IDF. Recently, recognizing these shifts, the IDF’s Chief of Staff Benny Gantz said: “The reality in which the majority serve is liable to change. The State of Israel should find this development disturbing.”

Currently, half of conscription-age Israelis enlist in the IDF. This number includes men, women, Orthodox Jews and Arab Israelis. If only Israeli Jews are counted, 67 percent enlisted in 2010, compared to 70 percent in 1990. If only Jewish men are counted, 75 percent join. IDF forecasts predict that in the year 2020, only 46 percent of the population will enlist—less than half. The main reason for not enlisting is religion. Up from 10 percent in 2006, 13 percent claim “Torato Omanuto” (“Torah Study—His Artistry”), which allows haredi yeshiva students to de-facto not join. An additional 6 percent are released from service for medical and psychological reasons. Unlike the haredim, the national religious do not dodge the draft. On the contrary, more than half of the IDF’s young combat officers are national religious, like Bennett, with this being the case for at least five years now.

Based on the data, two conclusions arise: First, the fundamental idea of the IDF as a melting pot churning out tightly knit citizens is simply no longer true. And second, the national religious, who believe in the Land of Israel and who form the backbone of the army, comprise a much higher percentage of combat officers than their share of the population.

But perhaps even more alarming are the implications that these trajectories have for the future ability of an Israeli government to make concessions towards peace. As time passes, the capacity of the Jewish state to apply policies that clash with the beliefs of those who serve on its front lines will become even more circumscribed. It is quite difficult to convince a believer that there is another way. This means that while belief can be wielded as an extremely powerful weapon on the battlefield, it also curbs future options—alluded to by Bennett—which Israel will have towards carrying out any future controversial policies.

Instead of debating such significant developments, Israeli politicians are more focused on the upcoming elections. After all, why worry about long-term questions when the myopic mind focuses on short-term rewards that accompany elections? Israeli society is making a mistake when it doesn’t acknowledge these developments or attempt to engage them meaningfully.