Money, not Zionism, attracts todays Israeli army officers

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JERUSALEM — There is a quiet revolution taking place among mid-level Israeli army officers, and the army appears to be happy about it.

Zionism and an ideological sense of mission are no longer the decisive factors for staying in uniform after one's initial mandatory tour of duty. For today's majors and lieutenant colonels, signing on is a career move. The military is a job, and a well-paid one at that.

"I see it as a challenge. I think I chose a profession which is very interesting to me and one I can advance in," said Maj. Moshe, currently participating in the annual Israel Defense Force's battalion commanders' course.

"I certainly think that the element of personal satisfaction plays a vital role here," said Moshe, who like other officers declined to reveal his last name.

A generation ago, officers rarely spoke in terms of personal fulfillment in explaining why they chose a military career. On the Golan Heights last week, course participants took turns commanding battalions of infantry-backed Merkava tanks, courtesy of the Seventh Armored Brigade, as they attacked and conquered mock Syrian positions.

It has been 23 years since the IDF fought on the Golan Heights and 14 since it even had to wage a serious battle, having been forced to sit out the 1991 Gulf War. Theoretically, the army still trains for conventional war, but the past decade has been spent mainly doing glorified police work.

The diminished existential threat to Israel combined with the belief that war seems a remote possibility has not only led to a drop in motivation to serve in reserves, but it may be one of the leading factors for the rise in a new kind of commander: a highly trained professional who draws his incentive not only from values of patriotism, but from an individual sense of success — a sort of military yuppie.

"We are still under threat and we can't forget that ideology is a strong motivator, but I see my military career as a profession," said 28-year-old Maj. Yariv.

"The army doesn't have to market itself. Look, here I am about to assume command of an artillery battalion, and that is quite an achievement."

Nahal Corps Major Ron said his military path was mapped out deep into the next decade, but that the army allowed for a flexibility that let him take academic breaks.

"We are not cut off from society. We reflect it," said the young, stocky major, adding that the IDF had recognized the trends of individualism in the Israel of the 1990s.

In any future war, battalion commanders are likely to find themselves in the pivotal role of senior officers on the battlefield. It is crucial that they be able to function under pressure, and live-fire exercises train them in that. These exercises employ artillery, armor, infantry and air strikes, making them among the most expensive courses in the IDF.

According to the latest IDF figures, a battalion commander in the field nets about $2,300 a month, not including a car and other benefits.

"I can't say what motivated our chief of staff to decide to stay on in the army back in the 1960s, whether it was a sense of serving the homeland, or something else," said another officer. "But in today's era, personal reasons are very important."

The IDF recognizes this trend and is welcoming it.

"This is the direction. Nothing can be done about it. The army sees itself as a profession and this demands this sort of attitude towards it and this kind of training. This is what we are heading for," said course commander Brig.-Gen. Zvika Gendelman.

Motivation among the 60 participants in the annual battalion commanders' course ran high. In fact, there were more candidates than places, instructors said.

While the peace process has brought about some changes in nuances, the IDF has not essentially altered its fundamental philosophy of defense. It is still an army based on its vast mobilized reserve force which must be able to throw a ring of steel and fire around three land fronts simultaneously, halt the enemy and take the battle to them.

While separated in age by a mere decade, there seemed to be a world of difference between the professional officers and the reservists.

The reservists shrugged off those who said they were crazy to have volunteered for the 30-day course while thousands are now avoiding reserve duty.

Hosheah Ben-Shalom, a bearded, knitted yarmulke-clad kibbutznik from Kibbutz Beit Yisrael, said he came to the course out of a sense of mission.

"I have been fired at a lot in my life and I know what moves people under fire. The only way to deal with it is to put a tradition of dedication first," Ben-Shalom said.

"You can't do it out of a sense of professionalism because in a career you are not endangered; if you are a lawyer you won't die by losing a court case, you don't die by being a clerk in the Finance Ministry. You die in war and what motivates one there is totally different."

Added Ben-Shalom: "It's hard to have an Israeli society with American values."

Rugged reserve paratrooper Major Menachem Grayevsky is just a few generations out of a European ghetto. "If there wasn't such thing as reserve duty we would have to invent something like it," said the 36-year-old father of five.

"In reserve duty we speak more of values. We are literally linked with the land. We are forging a bond with other men who will charge forward if need be. All this creates a different world."

A professional photographer in civilian life, Grayevsky spoke of the camaraderie among his generation of reservists. Ben-Shalom, 37, spoke of a longing for the Israel of his youth. They both seemed to use reserve duty as a way to hang on to that era.

Would they be able to stand the test of fire should war break out? Replied the forum of reservists and professional officers in unison: "Without a doubt."