When the Labor Party postponed its leadership race from July 3 to one day later, the non-believable reason political correspondents were given was that American singer Britney Spears had a concert set for Yarkon Park that night and that Tel Aviv would be too crowded.
But Zionist Union Knesset member Omer Bar Lev, who is running in the race, saw a much more serious reason for the delay: July 4 is the 41st anniversary of the 1976 Entebbe Operation.
Bar Lev took part in the operation, in which the commander of the General Staff Reconnaissance Unit, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s brother, Lt.-Col. Yoni Netanyahu, was killed.
In an interview at his office in the Knesset, Bar Lev recalled Yoni Netanyahu’s courage under fire and lamented that his brother is not as bold. Bar Lev said his mission to replace the prime minister was inspired by Yoni.
“I learned from Yoni Netanyahu that a commander must run forward without looking back,” Bar Lev said. “When I win the Labor leadership, I will run against Benjamin Netanyahu and display the courage of his brother, which he lacks. He is a hesitater and a coward, who is completely afraid of making decisions.”
Born in Haifa to former IDF chief of staff and government minister Haim Bar-Lev, Omer followed in Yoni Netanyahu’s footsteps and commanded the General Staff Reconnaissance Unit. He then enjoyed a comfortable career in hi-tech, before giving it up to enter politics, entering the Knesset in 2013.
Haim Bar Lev was initially Labor’s candidate for defense minister in the 1984 election. But three days before the race, when the party’s prime ministerial candidate Shimon Peres received polls indicating Labor would win more seats if Yitzhak Rabin would be its candidate for prime minister or defense minister, Peres asked Bar Lev to step aside. Bar Lev agreed in a gentleman-like gesture. But Labor still lost the race.
Thirty-one years later, Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog asked Omer Bar Lev to do the same thing: stand aside for former OC Intelligence Amos Yadlin. The result was the same.
“My father and I were both ready to put the good of the party ahead of the good of ourselves,” Bar Lev said.
On Thursday morning, when Bar Lev’s chief strategist, Emilie Moatti, invited political correspondents to a last-minute press conference, some speculated that Bar Lev would step aside again and endorse one of his rivals for the Labor leadership.
But Bar Lev instead used the press conference to formally announce his candidacy and present his plans for the party under his leadership. Bar Lev told reporters at the event that he would advance to a runoff race, most likely against MK Amir Peretz.
To reach a runoff, Bar Lev would have to get more votes than Herzog, MK Erel Margalit, former environmental protection minister Avi Gabbay, former OC Northern Command Amiram Levin, historian Avner Ben-Zaken, Ra’anana Labor member Hod Karubi and socioeconomic activist Dina Dayan.
Bar Lev said he is not running to avenge Herzog’s decision to replace him with Yadlin, and that he is neither jealous nor wicked.
“I am running because I believe Labor abandoned diplomatic and security issues,” Bar Lev said. “Our future depends on our security. That is what most people vote on. People in Ashdod told me that they don’t care if they don’t have food. They want security, and Bibi [Netanyahu] gives them security.”
Bar Lev said his security background could restore Labor to its former status as the main alternative to Netanyahu’s Likud, which it has lost according to the polls to former finance minister Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid.
“People stop me on the street and say they are Likudniks, but if I lead Labor, they will vote for me,” Bar Lev said. “Citizens of Israel trust me and believe in me. That gives me an advantage over Lapid, who doesn’t understand security and is shallow. When I head Labor and present clear views on diplomatic and security issues, it will bring back people who moved to Lapid.”
A Smith Research poll commissioned by Bar Lev found that the public wants a leader with security experience. The poll predicted Bar Lev would finish second in the first round of voting, behind Peretz, whom he could beat in the second round.
The poll also found that while he is not very well known among the general public, he is among the Labor members who will decide the primary election.
If he wins, Bar Lev hopes to initiate a vote on the Center-Left for the candidate to oppose Netanyahu. He said he hoped to compete in an open primary against Lapid, Kulanu leader Moshe Kahlon and any other party leader.
Reacting to Levin adding another security figure to the Labor race, Bar Lev said it was a positive development that people with security backgrounds were joining the party. But he questioned why they were shooting for the top spot on the list rather than working their way up, as he has done.
“That people join the party and then decide after a matter of months to run for leader is not acceptable to me,” Bar Lev said, referring to Levin and Gabbay. “But they are good people. I see them not as competition but as partners for me in the future, when I lead the party.”
Bar Lev also had criticism for Peretz, who was defense minister during the Second Lebanon War, which was the first war the 63-year-old Bar Lev did not participate in since he turned 18.
“When tested, the IDF is supposed to take initiative, surprise the enemy and bring about key achievements,” he said. “That wasn’t that war. The army dealt mostly with rescuing and treating the wounded.”
Bar Lev does not believe Middle East peace is around the corner. But he also does not believe the international community will let Israel continue to control the Palestinians.
His “Separating in Security” plan, which was adopted by the party under Herzog, calls for four immediate steps: stopping construction outside defined settlement blocs, evacuating and compensating those who voluntarily leave communities outside the blocs, allowing Palestinians to build homes and institutions in Area C, and demilitarization for development in the Gaza Strip, including building land and sea ports.
“I believe we have not yet completed implementing the Zionist vision of a secure, democratic Israel with a permanent Jewish majority,” he said. “For that, we have to separate from the Palestinians, without harming the Jewish state and without the IDF moving anywhere.
“I don’t know if there’s a partner,” he said. “But separating from the Palestinians is right for us and depends on us. As I told Netanyahu, we need a diplomatic Entebbe.”