Panel recommends end to Israeli draft
By PETER ENAV, Associated Press Writer, 24 September 2003 

JERUSALEM (AP) - A military committee is recommending Israel do away with universal draft, one of the pillars of Israeli society, and limit conscription to combat-ready recruits, a general said Wednesday.

The sweeping changes are necessary for economic reasons, said Maj. Gen. Gil Regev, the army chief of manpower. He appointed the committee and confirmed many of the findings reported Wednesday by the Yediot Ahronot daily.

For decades, the Israeli military has acted as a melting pot for a society made up of immigrants from more than 100 countries.

Under the current law, men are liable for three years of service and women, 21 months, starting at age 18. Officers serve an extra year.

But immigrants often lack the basic education needed to serve, including an ability to speak Hebrew.

Some of the women soldiers are trained as teachers, and they, in turn, instruct soldiers in a full-time classroom course to bring them up to high school equivalency. Other women soldiers serve as teachers in outlying communities.

The committee recommended the army do away with these nonmilitary roles - for teachers as well as for students - a drastic change in the way Israel sees its military.

Interviewed on Channel 2 TV, Regev said alternatives must be found that would not ``burden the army with a group of people for whom, perhaps, army service is not suitable.''

Because of a severe economic downturn, Israel has been slashing its defense budget in recent years, despite three years of Israeli-Palestinian conflict that has increased military activity.

Israeli experts studying the army from outside have determined that with the defeat of Iraq, which reduced the threat against Israel, the military can safely cut back on combat units, though the generals are hesitant to take such steps.

``In the present economic reality we are facing, there is room to consider whether the current model ... should be changed,'' Regev said, noting the committee has not completed its final report and that its recommendations are not for immediate implementation.

``There is definitely the possibility of a model under which not all men would serve the full three years,'' Regev said.

Regev said that universal service is already a myth - about 22 percent of eligible men are not drafted. Some are ultra-Orthodox Jews and Israeli Arabs, who are exempt, while others are released for medical or social reasons. Also, Regev said, another 20 percent do not complete their full service.

Changing the draft system to include parallel civilian service would maintain, rather than dismantle, the concept of a ``people's army,'' Regev said.

However, opposition lawmaker Yossi Sarid complained to Israel Radio that the recommendations would make the army elitist ``and further marginalize the weaker sectors.''

According to the newspaper, the report also recommended paying soldiers in the regular army about $775 a month, 10 times the current rate.

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