The former commander of an elite IDF brigade has said he is hoping to take over from Isaac Herzog as Israel’s opposition leader and draw on his special forces’ experience to “give the Israeli public confidence”.
Omer Barlev, 63, is widely seen as one of two top candidates to replace ‘Buji’ Herzog as leader of the Zionist Union, an amalgamation of Israel’s Labor party and Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua party. Amir Peretz, a former party leader and the other main contender in July’s primaries, announced his candidacy last month.
Barlev, a former commander of Israel’s elite Sayeret Matkal unit, was involved in many of Israel’s most daring missions, including the raid on Entebbe. After entering the Knesset (Israeli parliament) in 2013, he drafted a strategic plan for disarming and developing Gaza, widely regarded as the country’s blueprint for rebuilding the Strip.
Speaking to Jewish News this week, he said there was currently a window of opportunity to strike a deal with the Palestinians involving regional actors.
“Right now, there is a very unique situation in the Middle East, an interaction of interests between Israel and moderate Sunni states like Jordan, Egypt, the Emirates, Saudi Arabia,” he said.
“It’s because of what is happening in the Muslim world. They’re fighting for their lives against Islamic State, or ISIL, so they have an interest with us, with intelligence, we can have a big say over this. Also, they don’t want Hamas to turn to ISIL in Gaza. So this is the time to join together.”
He is subtly critical of Herzog for giving the Israeli public mixed messages, saying: “Our vision and political direction have not been clear to the Israeli public, to say the least. They don’t know if we want to join the government or criticise the government.”
Barlev is no stranger to speaking him mind and bucking a trend, and was strikingly at odds with Herzog over the nuclear deal signed between Iran and the US, UK, France, Russia, China and Germany.
Whereas Herzog mirrored Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s insistence that it was “a terrible deal,” Barlev thought – and thinks – that it was successful insofar as “it neutralised an existential threat to Israel for ten years”.
He adds: “The alternative [to the deal] was not that sanctions continued – it was that sanctions collapsed. I was almost the only Member of the Knesset to say so. Two months later the Israeli nuclear committee said the same, but until then I was alone.”
On rebuilding Gaza, in order to avoid further bloodshed, Barlev remains adamant that measures need to be taken by Israel now. “For us it’s not important what Hamas do, but what we do,” he says.
“Unfortunately, we’re doing nothing. And there are quite a few voices in the Israeli security establishment saying that by doing nothing we are lead Israeli towards another round of violence. The UN says there will be a humanitarian catastrophe in the next two to three years. So it’s not a question of whether we do something, but rather what we so do.
“The Initiative I presented not about confidence-building measures but what we can and should do for a better future. This leads to confidence. You don’t start with confidence – the two sides don’t trust each other. It is only the things we do that will build confidence. It is time to start doing them.”