In the running

Israel can’t afford to sit and do nothing, says Labor’s new defense man

Omer Barlev — son of a former chief of staff, the ex-commander of one of the army’s most elite units and a hi-tech entrepreneur — knew Benjamin Netanyahu as a soldier. He has few kind words for him today

Omer Barlev (photo credit: Flash90)
Omer Barlev (photo credit: Flash90)

In October 1973, in the midst of the Yom Kippur War, Omer Barlev was preparing for a helicopter flight across the Suez Canal to seize an Egyptian military airport behind enemy lines. He was 20. The tide of the war had not yet turned in Israel’s favor and the southern front was in disarray.

Before he boarded the helicopter, he saw the reserve general whom the government had taken from his job as a Labor Party minister in the Cabinet, returned to uniform and sent hastily to take over the collapsing defenses in Sinai. It was Haim Barlev, the former chief of staff, who was also Omer’s father.

“He happened to pass by just then,” the younger Barlev recalled this week. “We exchanged glances.”

Barlev and his comrades were then dropped off deep in Sinai. One of their officers was killed on the first day of the operation. Barlev’s own platoon leader died the next. Four of Barlev’s 10 platoon-mates were wounded. They held the airport.

In the nearly 40 years that have passed, Omer Barlev left the army, studied agriculture and international relations, returned to the army to command the General Staff Reconnaissance Unit — Sayeret Matkal, in Hebrew, one of the military’s most elite outfits and a breeding ground for future politicians — left again, came back to take another command position, then left the army for good in 1994. In 1978, he was among several hundred reserve soldiers and officers who signed a letter to prime minister Menachem Begin urging him to make peace with Egypt, the beginning of the Peace Now movement. He started a leadership program for disadvantaged youth, and, in keeping with Israel’s 21st-century zeitgeist, launched a successful technology start-up, selling medical imaging software to hospitals from a hi-tech park in a Tel Aviv suburb.

Now, at 59, he is following his father’s footsteps to politics as a member of the Labor Party.

Omer Barlev with his father, former chief of staff Haim Barlev, in the mid-1980s, when Omer commanded the army's elite Sayeret Matkal unit (Courtesy of Omer Barlev)
Omer Barlev with his father, former chief of staff Haim Barlev, in the mid-1980s, when Omer commanded the army’s elite Sayeret Matkal unit (Courtesy of Omer Barlev)

He made the decision after the right’s ascendance in the 2009 election, Barlev, a wiry, fit man with cropped gray hair and a grim military manner, said in an interview this week at the offices of his company, Paieon Medical. He wore a mint-green shirt and jeans. Two young hi-tech types, a computer programmer and medical specialist, ate Chinese in small cafeteria nearby.

Barlev decided, he said, that it was time to “leave my comfortable armchair and help bring change.”

Barlev is seventh on the party list, assuring him a place in parliament. (Current polls give the party about 17 seats.) Labor was once a party full of generals and ex-military men, but several high-profile security personalities have departed in recent years, and party leader Shelly Yachimovich has made social and economic issues her focus. Barlev, a political rookie who did not serve in the military’s uppermost ranks, is currently the party’s most prominent defense candidate.

He brings with him what has become one of the strongest brands in Israeli politics: the supersoldier halo of Sayeret Matkal, sometimes referred to simply as “the Unit.” Some see the Matkal veterans as daring, out-of-the-box thinkers with exceptional leadership capabilities; others see them as arrogant, overconfident and incapable of teamwork. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is a former Matkal man, and so is Ehud Barak, the defense minister. Doron Avital and Yohanan Plesner, lawmakers from the Kadima party, are from the Unit, and so is Naftali Bennett, leader of the religious party Jewish Home.

While outsiders might lump them together, Barlev made clear, the Unit’s veterans do not. Barak, Avital, and Barlev himself commanded Matkal, as did Likud’s Moshe Ya’alon, the strategic affairs minister. The others were just soldiers and junior officers  — including Netanyahu.

“As far as the Unit is concerned, it’s two different worlds,” he said.

Barlev grew up moving around Israel and the globe with his mother and older sister, following his father to New York and Paris when the elder Barlev studied at Columbia University and the Sorbonne. His father, who died in 1994, was often absent and preoccupied with matters of national importance, and growing up in the shadow of this “total sacrifice for the goal,” Barlev said, helped steer him away from a military career.

Barlev and Labor leader Shelly Yachimovich. Labor is no longer a party stocked with generals, and Barlev is currently its senior defense figure (Courtesy of Omer Barlev)
Barlev and Labor leader Shelly Yachimovich. Labor is no longer a party stocked with generals, and Barlev is currently its senior defense figure (Courtesy of Omer Barlev)

It was the 1973 war that shaped his life as a young man. That war is also probably the first thing most Israelis think of when they hear Barlev’s family name.

The inadequate line of outposts along the Suez Canal that was breached by the Egyptian army in its surprise attack had been built during Lt. Gen. Barlev’s term as chief of staff and was known as the Barlev Line. It became synonymous with the blithe and inflexible thinking of Israel’s leadership that had led to the failure to foresee the Yom Kippur offensive and to the near-collapse of the army on both fronts at the beginning of the war.

Lt. Gen. Barlev, who left the army two years before the war, maintained that Sinai’s defenses had been mishandled after his departure by Ariel Sharon, who was in charge of Southern Command. The line of outposts along the canal, he said, was meant only to protect lookouts and had never been meant to hold off an assault — that was to be the job of tank units held in reserve deeper in the desert. But both the outposts and the tank reserves, in the general’s opinion, were neglected by Sharon, who left the army several months before the war and bequeathed to his successor an ill-planned defense strategy. Sharon, who returned to uniform after fighting broke out, later became seen as a hero for leading the daring canal crossing that gave Israel the initiative and eventually ended the war.

The old Labor establishment, which ran the government and the army, and of which Haim Barlev was a leading member, never recovered. Four years later, Labor lost its first election ever to Sharon’s party, Likud.

Barlev knew Netanyahu in their army days but has few kind words for him now. ‘Unfortunately,’ he said, ‘you can’t believe Bibi Netanyahu’

“The matter of the Barlev Line angered my father, of course, and me, as well,” Omer Barlev said this week.

“The person who dismantled the whole defense concept was Sharon,” he said. “Of course it was convenient for him to make much of the idea that the Barlev Line didn’t withstand the war, and not of his own responsibility for the Sinai defenses.”

Omer’s cousin, Rafi, was also serving in the south as a reconnaissance company commander at the height of the fighting. While Lt. Gen. Barlev oversaw the front, his staff officers gave him updates on the whereabouts of Omer and Rafi until the general asked them to stop.

“My father did that because he knew that if one day they suddenly stopped reporting, it would make things very difficult for him,” Barlev said.

Rafi went missing on the eastern shore of the canal the night of the crossing. Lt. Gen. Barlev later went looking for him and found his body.

Just days after the war’s end, Omer was brought from a Sinai hill to a meeting with the Unit’s deputy commander — Yoni Netanyahu, brother of the future prime minister. Before the war, the Matkal commander, Ehud Barak, had tried to convince Barlev to sign on for officer school, but he had refused. This time, Yoni simply informed Barlev he would be reporting to officers’ training.

After high school, most of Barlev’s classmates had joined the Armored Corps, which bore the brunt of the fighting, and three of them, young tank commanders, had just been killed. The country had lost 2,500 soldiers. This time Barlev felt he could not say no.

In 1976, he was a team commander in the hostage rescue at Entebbe, a Matkal operation. Yoni Netanyahu, commanding the rescue, was shot and died “beside me,” Barlev said.

Afterwards, he said, he had long conversations with Yoni’s two brothers, Benjamin and Iddo, about the circumstances of the commander’s death. “I knew him well, for many years,” Barlev said of the prime minister.

Today, however, he has few kind words for Netanyahu.

It was in large part a sense that Netanyahu was dangerously mishandling the country that helped draw Barlev into the 2013 campaign. Barlev has a successful company, his volunteer work, a home in the upscale central Israel suburb of Kochav Yair, and three children — a son in university, a daughter who is an officer in the Armored Corps, and another son in high school. He was not, he said, “looking for a job.”

While Labor has not ruled out joining a Netanyahu coalition, Barlev said that was very unlikely.

“We believe in dramatically different things,” he said. “And unfortunately, you can’t believe Bibi Netanyahu.”

A Barlev poster. Now 59, Barlev is following his father into politics as a member of Labor
A Barlev poster. Now 59, Barlev is following his father into politics as a member of Labor (Courtesy of Omer Barlev)

Israel’s government, he said, is carrying out a strategy of “sitting and doing nothing” instead of acting to secure Israel’s position in the Middle East. Israel’s international standing is eroding, and the Palestinians are increasingly seeing success in unilateral actions.

“Today, west of the Jordan, the population is already only half Jewish, and demography isn’t working in our favor. Reality doesn’t stand still — only our illusions remain the same,” he said.

“Many things are happening, and only we are deluding ourselves that nothing is happening. This will lead to a binational state,” he said.

Barlev believes what Labor came to believe in the 1990s: that a negotiated peace with the Palestinians is possible, and that the outline of the deal will follow the so-called “Clinton parameters,” the principles pushed by president Bill Clinton during the Oslo-era negotiations. An offer based on those parameters was rejected by Yasser Arafat and the Palestinians in 2000 and then again, in improved form, in early 2001. A better offer was not accepted by Mahmoud Abbas, the current president of the Palestinian Authority, in talks with prime minister Ehud Olmert in 2008. With Israel already out of Gaza, Olmert offered a full withdrawal from the West Bank — with land swaps to enable Israel’s annexation of major settlement blocs, the division of Jerusalem into Israeli and Palestinian neighborhoods, and the establishment of an international trusteeship to replace Israeli sovereignty in the Old City.

The failure of the Olmert-Abbas contacts indicated that the maximum offer Israelis could conceivably vote for would fall short of the Palestinians’ minimal demands — assuming the Palestinian leadership wants a state alongside Israel, which many Israelis no longer believe. Israelis, watching the region destabilize and fearful of a Hamas takeover or Syria-style anarchy if the army leaves the West Bank, have come to be wary of land-for-peace arrangements — hence the nearly certain victory of Netanyahu and the right in this month’s elections. Faced with its own eclipse, the left has failed to acknowledge that reality has undergone a fundamental shift since the days of Oslo or to offer an increasingly skeptical public any new ideas.

‘We don’t say here in my company or anywhere else, OK, it doesn’t exist, so we won’t try. This approach is unacceptable in politics too’

Barlev believes the claim that Israel does not have a peace partner in Abbas and the Palestinian Authority is merely a political tactic advanced by the right. It is possible, he said, to reach a “series of understandings over many years that will lead in the end to an agreement along the Clinton parameters.”

“The slogan of ‘we tried and it didn’t work’ is not relevant,” he said. “Half of what we do here in Israel, certainly in this industry, is innovation — creating something from nothing. We don’t say here in my company or anywhere else, ‘OK, it doesn’t exist, so we won’t try.’ This approach is unacceptable in politics too.”

Israel can improve ties with Turkey and Egypt and other neighbors, bring in the Gulf states to pressure the Palestinians, and show the world it is willing to compromise, he said. If the Palestinians decline, he said, “we’ll have legitimacy internationally to continue our military presence until they change their mind.”

Barlev describes himself as an optimist: “Without optimism you can’t do innovation, and that’s what I do here.” He gestured around his company’s offices.

“In the Unit, in operations of various kinds, you break the framework and do new things. Throughout my life I’ve been creating things that didn’t exist before,” he said.


This is the fourth in a series of profiles of political players leading up to Israel’s national election on January 22, 2013. Previous installments featured the renegade rabbi Haim Amsalemretired general Elazar Stern; and Ayelet Shaked, a secular candidate in the religious party Jewish Home.

Find Matti Friedman on Twitter and Facebook.

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