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COLUMN ONE : The Israeli Military Mutates : As the Jewish state nears 50, its revered citizens army is changing both in reality and in the public mind. Its critics are bolder, the region is more peaceful and many young people are less inclined to serve.

November 01, 1995|MARJORIE MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JERUSALEM — When he was a boy, Danny Dromi shared the Israeli dream of joining his country's strong Jewish army. He longed to become a fighter pilot like his father, who served during several of the country's decisive wars.

Then Dromi turned 18. He had long hair and tattoos. He practiced guitar 16 hours a day and played in a rock band that hoped to hit it big.

After a few days of grueling army basic training, he got a psychiatrist to declare him unfit for obligatory military duty and dropped out of the army.

"I had direction. I had my music, my friends around that. I didn't want to go," he said.

The decision devastated his father, who retired from the air force as a colonel after 25 years and now serves as a government spokesman.

"It was a bitter blow," said Uri Dromi. "When I went into the army at his age, everyone went. There was no question. I look at the army as a necessity. Our long war for independence is still going on. It took me some time to realize that times have changed."

These are new times for Israel's revered citizens army as the Jewish state nears its 50th anniversary amid relative peace and prosperity. Accords with Egypt and Jordan, even sporadic negotiations with Syria, mean that Israel no longer faces the prospect of a unified Arab assault. An interim agreement with the Palestine Liberation Organization is bringing an end to the 28-year occupation of the West Bank. Instead of confronting Palestinians, Israeli soldiers may be called upon to defend the accord with their former enemies against Jewish opposition.

The Israeli-Palestinian accord has also helped to break Israel's economic isolation. And as Israelis grow wealthier, they are also more concerned with personal comforts and less willing to make endless sacrifices for the nation's defense.

As a result of these changes, the army is encountering among some youths a new reluctance to put aside personal ambitions for their country's collective good. The army also faces scrutiny by a more openly critical public and its first significant budget cuts by a more discerning government.

The army, in turn, is adapting, becoming a smaller, more high-tech military force.

The changes may seem minimal by some measures--the vast majority of men and women still fulfill their compulsory military service--but they reflect a major shift in thinking for a nation that has long regarded the army as the centerpiece of its society.

"Israel as a country is maturing," said Reuven Gal, director of the Israeli Institute for Military Studies in Haifa. "The psychological makeup of the nation is changing. . . . Lots of things related to the army that were considered sacred cows for many years are not sacred cows any longer."

The army earned its exalted position in Israel by winning multiple wars against more powerful Arab forces that were trying to destroy the Jewish state. Israel owed its life to the army, and, as long as the country was in a constant state of alert over its national security, the army's behavior was largely beyond question.

Meantime, in a nation of immigrants from around the globe, the army became the great integrator, turning Jews from all social and cultural backgrounds into Hebrew-speaking Israelis united against a common enemy. The army also produced Israel's heroes and its leaders. An illustrious military career became key to professional and even political success. The reverse was also true. Failure to serve in the army or poor performance meant a life of second-class jobs and social ostracism.

Danny Dromi discovered this was still largely the case when he shunned the army two years ago. His friends and family stood by him, and even his father decided that "what he needed was not a macho father telling him this is terrible, but some support." But when Dromi went job hunting, he was rejected by almost 50 employers after admitting on application forms that he had not finished his service.

He finally landed work in a music store because of his guitar skills. But after seven months on the job, he reconsidered his decision.

"I realized I was trying to live like the Red Hot Chili Peppers [rock band] in Los Angeles. But here, that's not possible. Every hour you have the beep beep beep [on the radio] announcing the news. You see the soldiers everywhere. There is danger, and everyone is tense."

In the end, he determined that the costs of staying out of the army were too high. "I wasn't going anywhere. I'm a musician, not a salesman. I decided to go back," he said.

Since Dromi returned to serve in an army band, Parliament has passed a new law restricting use of personal military information in civilian life. As of July, a prospective employer may ask only if someone served in the army, but nothing about one's military record.

Not a Status Symbol

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