The Armed Nation: The Rise and Fall of Israel’s Reserve Forces Phenomenon
Author: Dov Tamari
Publisher: Ministry of Defense, Tel Aviv
Date of publication: 2012
The Israeli Army is set apart from the rest of the world’s armies in that its primary combat forces are comprised of reserve troops that must permanently remain alert and ready to enter battle under short notice, even just a couple of days. Following the respective peace accords between Israel and Jordan and Egypt, Iraq’s end to confrontation with Israel, and Arab states renunciation of military confrontation as a means of restoring Arab rights, a debate has arisen in Israel among academics and researchers on whether the Israeli Army should remain “a people’s army” relying on compulsory service and reserve forces, or be transformed into a volunteer-based professional army.
Dov Tamari’s book addresses this specific concern in his book The Armed Nation: The Rise and Fall of Israel’s Reserve Forces Phenomenon (494 pages) published in Hebrew in 2012. The author, a retired brigadier general who held several important leadership positions in the Israeli Army, relies on primary sources, including several documents, plans, visualizations, and proposals developed by the army.
The first section of the book addresses the reserve forces during the Jewish Yishuv era, from the outbreak of the 1936 Palestinian revolution until the 1948 war. Tamari also examines the Israeli Army’s reserve forces and their role in the 1948 war. In the next section, he proceeds to analyze the process of organizing the reserve forces during the two years following the 1948 war and investigates their role from 1949 to 1967, particularly during the 1956 and 1967 wars. Tamari then addresses the role of the reserve forces from late 1967 until 1974, and concludes the book with an analysis of the factors contributing to a decrease of reserves in the Israeli Army in the past three decades.
At the start of the book, the author notes how the leaders of the paramilitary organization Haganah, and that of the Jewish Yishuv in Palestine, dealt with a number of security-military issues in the conflict with Palestinians and the surrounding Arabs states in the decade preceding Israel’s inception. At the forefront of these were: 1) how to create the largest Yishuv military force possible in preparation for war, 2) the quantity and quality of the nature of the relationships between the Haganah’s organizing forces, consisting of the Palmach (the strike forces) and its reserve forces, 3) determining the time period required to call the Haganah’s reserve forces to war, and 4) the manner in which they were to be trained in order to preserve a constant readiness to fight. The leaders of the Yishuv and Haganah developed comprehensive strategies that enabled the Yishuv’s military forces to take action against the Palestinians. The most prominent of these was Plan A in 1941, which developed into Plan B in 1945, Plan C in 1946, and Plan D in March of 1948, whereby the Haganah forces, and thereafter the Israeli Army, occupied and destroyed Palestinian villages, expelling their inhabitants. Tamari argues that the Yishuv’s success in addressing the above security issues played a crucial role in determining the outcome of the 1948 war. The Yishuv in Palestine, numbering around 700,000 in mid-1948, succeeded in recruiting a number of fighters and outstripped the collective Arab forces and armies that participated in all stages of the 1948 war, with the Haganah’s militia numbering 65,000 male and female fighters. With the encouragement and resolve of the Yishuv leadership, over 30,000 of the Jewish Yishuv in Palestine also volunteered to serve in the British Army during World War II, a third of whom came from the Haganah. Once the Israeli Army was established in May 1948 from the depths of the Haganah, its members totaled 36,500. A month later, its ranks increased to 54,000 members. Week after week, numbers continued to increase until they hit 104,000 in December 1948, after calling the entire reserve forces in, reducing the age of military service to 17 years of age in the summer of 1948, and following the arrival of over 20,000 Jewish volunteers from all over the world to enlist in the Israeli Army’s ranks. In March 1949, the army had 114,500 members. Alternatively, the Arab forces and armies had 30,000 members participating in the 1948 war as of May 1948, rising to 60,000, with most of the additional fighters coming from the Egyptian Army, at the end of the war.
The second part of the book discusses the deliberations and debates that took place among the General Staff of the Israeli Army in the Ministry of Defense surrounding the method of organizing the army, preparing it for the next war, and the respective sizes of the standing army and the reserve forces. The author notes that the Israeli leadership knew that Israel could not, from an economic standpoint, keep a large standing army, prompting David Ben-Gurion to suggest reducing its size to 20,000, compensating for the decrease with an increase in reserve forces. Such a move enabled the Israeli Army to confront all of the Arab armies. Following deliberations between chiefs of staff and Ben-Gurion, it was decided in early 1950 that the standing army would have 30,000 members, while the reserve forces would constitute the core combative power of the Israeli Army. Accordingly, the reserve forces were organized in two phases. In the first phase, at the beginning of the 1950s, all participants from the 1948 with military experience were summoned to serve in the reserve forces, totaling 80,000 members. In the second phase, all citizens that had newly immigrated and were of military age, and who had for one reason or another not participated in the 1948 war were summoned, raising the reserve forces to 201,000 by the end of 1950 and bring the army’s complete count to 243,000 soldiers and officers. With the increase of immigration to Israel in 1953, the reserve forces numbered 292,000 and the standing army 46,000. The standing army specialized in facing ongoing security problems, training the reserve forces, and absorbing a number of army members into its units after their compulsory service had ended. The role of the reserve forces, on the other hand, was to conduct training for at least one month out of the year, prepare for the next war, or participate in qualitative military operations alongside the main army when the need arose.
The Reserve Forces and the Expansion of Israel’s Vital Domain
Based on documentation from the General Staff of the Israeli Army and its plans in the 1950s and 1960s, the author argues that the Israeli military and political institutions viewed the 1948 war as the start of a series of wars that Israel must prepare for and seek favorable opportunities to carry out. Their goal was to complete “the liberation of the nation” by expanding the borders in all directions. Tamari notes how the concept of regional expansion was solid and rooted in all bodies of the General Staff. The issue of expanding into the lands of neighboring Arab states has accompanied the Israeli Army from its inception until today (p. 214). The author notes that, in addition to other factors, the composition of Israel’s army, and its basic reliance on reserve forces, have affected its adoption of the policy of regional expansion. The General Staff of the Israeli Army has been shaping its strategy of regional expansion since 1950, developing operational plans to implement this strategy under a series of “cases” that, once faced, will compel the army to wage expansive wars. It is clear from Israel’s military plans from the 1950s, which bear the names “the case of all,” “the case of north-south,” and “the case of the east,” that their goal is a regional expansion to “Israel’s strategic vital domain” in all directions, reaching Israel’s natural borders (p. 216). These plans include waging a war on Jordan, occupying the West Bank and East Jordan, and repositioning the line east of Amman-Al Mafraq- Irbid.
Tamari claims that in June 1953, the Israeli Army developed plans for wider expansion, including the occupation of the West Bank, Sinai, the Golan Heights, and South Lebanon up to the Litani River (p. 217). In 1953, in light of the increasing tension between Britain and Egypt in the wake of the July 23 revolution, the Israeli Army developed a plan to prepare for the exploitation of the British-Egyptian disagreement and occupy Egypt’s Sinai in order to fortify the Israeli borders in terms of both security and economy, provided that Israel saw the conditions suitable to do so. The plan stated that “the production of petrol in Sinai reaches 2.5 million tons per year. Israel’s use approaches 1.5 tons per year. Accordingly, Sinai’s petrol will be enough for Israel, and what remains will be exported” (p. 218).
In October 1953, the Israeli Army developed a plan to occupy the West Bank and East Jordan “in order to strengthen Israel’s security position and realize solid geographic depth and natural borders”. The plan called for expelling most Arabs from these areas because they would constitute a threat to Israel’s identity. The plan also discussed economic benefits; it ensured full control of the natural wealth of the Dead Sea, and opened up “the potential for expansion towards Saudi Arabia and the oil fields, all of which constitute a door of hope for the quick prosperity of the state of Israel” (p. 219).
During this time, the Israeli Army also conducted a comprehensive study on Israel and the Arab states: political, economic, social, military, and demographic. The finest specialized researchers among Israel’s military and civilians undertook this study. Its goal, according to the author, was to create a foundation for Israeli military thought according to which Israel’s borders would be reshaped. The author argued that this plan constituted an important milestone in the army’s mindset on the issue of regional expansion. The plan concluded that Israel should expand its borders in all directions. In the south, occupying the Sinai Peninsula would allow them to exploit its natural resources, especially petrol and manganese. In the east, occupying the West Bank and East Jordan, it would dissolve the state of Jordan and extend Israel’s borders to the Syrian desert that separates Jordan and Iraq. It would also occupy both sides of the Gulf of Aqaba, allowing Israel to exploit the natural resources of these regions, especially those of the Dead Sea. Finally, in the north, by occupying Bashan, Hauran, the Golan Heights, the summit of Mount Hermon, and South Lebanon up to the mouth of the Litani River, thereby annexing them all to Israel, Israel would be allowed to exploit the natural resources of these regions too, especially the water and wheat fields (p. 222-223). Since this plan called upon Israel to occupy and annex lands populated by Arabs, it also stressed the importance of expelling the great majority of Arabs from these regions in order to maintain the Jewish character of Israel.
Ben-Gurion’s Participation in the Plans
Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion had full knowledge of the expansion plans developed by Israel’s army. Tamari claims he also frequently participated, in the General Staff’s deliberations and discussions on these plans. In the spring of 1956, the army developed military plans aiming at expanding the borders of Israel, and the General Staff conducted a series of meetings to study these plans, which involved Prime Minister and Minister of Defense David Ben-Gurion, Chief of General Staff Moshe Dayan, and the head of training in the Israeli Army, Yitzhak Rabin. There was agreement among those present that Israel was to expand its borders in the next war. They also agreed that the next war would not be the last one. The author notes that a disagreement arose between Moshe Dayan and Yitzhak Rabin regarding the prioritization of Israeli expansion, with Rabin stating that the next war should aim toward expansion in the east, occupying the West Bank and annexing it to Israel. In answer to Ben-Gurion’s question regarding the fate of the Palestinians of the West Bank upon its occupation, Rabin said that the solution lie in their expulsion. Dayan, on the other hand, maintained that the priority was expansion in the south to occupy Sinai and annex it to Israel, particularly since it was sparsely populated. Ben-Gurion was of the opinion that a plan of war must give importance to political-international considerations, and to the positions of the major powers. He also thought that, in addition to regional expansion, the war should aim to defeat Abdel Nasser since he had a national project he sought to realize by targeting Israel (p. 224). When Israel, France, and Britain came to a secret agreement to attack Egypt, Ben-Gurion considered political and international facts to be appropriate for waging a war to overthrow Abdel Nasser and expand Israel’s borders on all sides, just as the military organization had been suggesting for years. Ben-Gurion wrote a memoir entry on October 22, 1956 while on board a French plane taking him to Paris for a meeting with French and British leaders in preparation for a tripartite war on Egypt. The author notes that what he wrote did not spring from a fantastical blight on the part of Ben-Gurion, but meshed perfectly with his opinions and the plans of the Israeli Army. Ben-Gurion wrote: “The plan is to overthrow Nasser and dissolve the state of Jordan, dividing it between Israel and Iraq. Israel will absorb the West Bank, while Iraq will absorb East Jordan. Israel will also annex parts of Syria and South Lebanon up to the Litani.” While returning to Tel Aviv, Ben-Gurion wrote:
Yesterday was a great day, for we reached an agreement to wage a joint war on Sinai and the Suez. Before that, I spoke with Guy Mollet [the French prime minister at the time] and told him about the discovery of great quantities of petrol in south and west Sinai, and that it is feasible to annex the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt. It did not belong to Egypt to begin with, and was instead stolen by the English from the Turks when they thought Egypt was in their pocket. I suggested to them that we extend pipelines from Sinai to Haifa to refine the petrol, and Mollet expressed interest in the proposition” (p. 227).
The author notes that Ben-Gurion knew that expanding the borders of Israel and annexing Sinai would not be feasible without the support of the major powers, with Britain, France, and the United States. According to the author, this was the reason compelling Ben-Gurion to deliver his expansion plans to the major powers, revealing advantages regarding their interests in the Middle East, especially those of France and Britain.
In the last chapter of the book, the author concludes that the Israeli Army’s reserve forces played a primary role in all of the wars that Israel waged from 1948 until today. He proceeds to examine the social, economic, and political factors leading to reductions in numbers among the Israeli Army’s reserve forces in the last three decades whether caused by an increase in evasion of compulsory service in the army, especially on the part of the ultra-orthodox Haredi Jews, or whether at the army leadership’s initiative for economic reasons. The author notes that the Jewish Israelis of military service age (ages 21 to 45) in the year 2000 numbered 830,000 in the reserve forces. Only 200,000 of them were called to serve in the reserve army, and they served for only 16 days on average, with half of them serving between one and three days that were spent on administrative matters instead of training; 100,000 of them served for four days or more, with only 32,000 serving for 26 days or more, while a member of the reserve forces was required to serve at least one month out of each year. The author notes that the size of the entire Israeli Army—both the standing army and the reserve forces—now stands at 622,000 (p. 482).
This means that the reserve forces in the Israeli Army have not increased in size in the last 30 years and more, despite the fact that the number of Israeli citizens has multiplied since then. The author calls for an increase in the number of reserve forces, the adherence to mandatory service, addressing the phenomenon of evasion from military service, which has increased in the last two decades, and providing financial incentives to those who are called upon each year to serve in the reserve forces.