Cover: Staffing the Israel Defense Force in the 21st Century

Staffing the Israel Defense Force in the 21st Century

Published Jun 28, 2024

by Amos Harel, Steven W. Popper

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The Israel Defense Force (IDF) is at a crossroads. The IDF was originally envisioned as a "people's army" in which all citizens would be expected to serve and that would build social cohesion. But some sections of society are exempt from military service entirely or are not required to serve, thus causing tensions with those who are required to serve. On the other hand, for various reasons, the IDF may need fewer personnel than previously. Various solutions have been proposed for these dilemmas, such as removing some of the exemptions so that service appears more equitable or turning to a more professional, volunteer force.

The authors detail the issues that Israel faces in balancing military manpower requirements not only against potential security threats but also with its complex social and political fabric. They consider both the environment prior to the Hamas assault of October 7, 2023, and what may have changed. They examine a possible midway solution: a coordinated model of compulsory national service that is not limited to military service that would rest on principles of universal participation, optimized pathways to suit different communities' ways of life, the IDF receiving first draft choice, exemptions for talented youth on agreed principles, and volunteer services run by civilian bodies.

Although research was concluded prior to the 2023–2024 conflict in Gaza, the authors conjecture that the issues discussed will have even more relevance going forward and point to several directions of possible change as a result of the war.

Key Findings

All modern militaries are facing the problem of meeting manpower needs

  • The general trend is toward smaller but much more proficient forces.
  • Israel's situation is more complicated. Enlistment in the IDF is theoretically mandatory, but there are several exemptions. This has raised tensions between those who do and do not serve.
  • While Israel does not have the same manpower requirements as it once did, service in the IDF has historically been one of the key institutions for maintaining social cohesion and forming national identity.

Evidence suggests that the IDF's current manpower model must change to meet current requirements

  • The historical model was born of a largely agricultural society with limited trade and manufacturing but that has since transformed into one of the major nodes in the global knowledge economy.
  • Turning to a purely volunteer, professional force would create new issues, among them concerns about command quality.
  • Wider societal implications stemming from potential changes make such a choice even more delicate.

Senior military leaders and the civilian oversight engaged in the debate would naturally seek a compromise

  • This would entail implementing necessary changes to the current system without deserting it altogether.
  • Such a compromise should leverage opportunities for nonmilitary service to the nation.


  • Israel's military manpower calculations need to balance security needs with recognition of the role the IDF plays in Israel's society and national identity.
  • Israel should consider a national service model that maintains the army's right of first choice among draftees while allowing those not selected to pick a different path through national service or service within their respective communities.
  • After October 7, 2023, Israel will need to respond to short-term needs brought about by emergency conditions. At the same time, it should not lose sight of both the need and opportunity to reconsider military requirements, future force structure, and the IDF's societal role over the longer term.

Research conducted by

Funding for this research was provided by the generous contributions of the RAND Center for Middle East Public Policy Advisory Board. The research was conducted by the RAND Center for Asia Pacific Policy within RAND International.

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