Obituary: Lt-Gen Haim Barlev

Joseph Finklestone
Sunday 23 October 2011 08:48

Haim Barlev, soldier, politician, diplomat: born Vienna 16 November 1924; Deputy Chief of Staff, Israeli Defence Forces 1967, Chief of Staff 1968-71; Minister of Commerce and Industry 1972-77; Ambassador to Russia 1993- 94; married (one son, one daughter); died Tel Aviv 7 May 1994.

HAIM BARLEV, the former Israeli Chief of Staff and cabinet minister, spoke in a slow, deliberate, distinctive drawl so instantly recognisable that it attracted the attention of comedians. Yet Barlev's voice and manner of speaking was in no way an affectation. It represented the methods, concepts and philosophy of the man. His was not the dashing impetuosity of an Ariel Sharon. His was the slow, calculating, cool analysis expected of a European rather than a Middle Eastern general.

Yet, as he showed throughout his outstanding career as an Israeli commander, Barlev could be as deliberate as a Montgomery and as dashing as a Patton, when the occasion demanded it. When the formidable but wounded Israeli prime minister Golda Meir believed that Israel was in deadly peril after President Anwar Sadat's Egyptian forces launched a surprise attack and crossed the Suez Canal into Sinai at the star of the 1973 Yom Kippur war, she turned to Haim Barlev to stabilise the Southern Front; he took in hand the inexperienced front commander and reined in the brilliant but impetuous combat general Ariel Sharon.

Significantly, the army was not Barlev's first choice of career. He was born in Vienna but when he was still a child his family moved to Yugoslavia, where Haim grew up, before settling in Palestine in 1939. Haim studied at the Mikhev Israel agricultural school with the intention of becoming a veterinary surgeon. But, his attention was drawn to the Palmach, the elite unit of the Haganah, the Jewish community's defence organisation, led by the inspirational Yigal Allon and including the future Chief of Staff and prime minister Yitzhak Rabin.

Displaying initiative in numerous commando-type raids against British targets in the dying days of the British mandate, including the blowing up of the Allenby bridge, Barlev was given command of a Palmach battalion in the War of Independence in 1948. His feat in forcing Egyptian crews to abandon their tanks and flee on foot won him much acclaim and marked his assent to the top of Israeli generalship. Particularly impressive was his ability to read the minds of his Arab opponents in the field and then surprise them. The Egyptians began to fear him as a man with uncanny gifts. When the Sinai war broke out in 1956 he was given charge of the 27th Armoured Brigade, taking his troops from Rafah to the Suez Canal in a dash across the Sinai Peninsular.

Now recognised as one of Israel's most astute generals, Barlev became commanding officer of the Armoured Corps, giving it a new concept as a powerful independent force to spearhead spectacular conquests. Preparing himself for still higher posts, Barlev was encouraged to study at military academies in Britain, the United States and France, but he was recalled on the eve of the Six Day War in 1967 when he was made Deputy Chief of Staff. He brought with him much-needed calm at a time when his fellow generals, including the Chief of Staff, Yitzhak Rabin, were suffering from tension caused by Levy Eshkol's cabinet's hesitation before giving the green light for a pre-emptive strike.

On succeeding Rabin as Chief of Staff in 1968, Barlev was presented with one of the most difficult problems that any Israeli general had had to face since the establishment of the state - the artillery bombardments by the Egyptian forces from across the Suez Canal. Israel could deal with visible enemy forces but the heavy guns given to President Nasser by the Kremlin were hidden in Egyptian territory and could not be easily located. What became known as the War of Attrition cost Israel many casualties, among them the son of one of the victors of the Six Day War, Ezer Weizman, the leading air force general. This toll in lives and limbs caused much anxiety and nervousness in Israel. It led to the building of what was described as 'the Barlev Line'. But this was never meant to be a defensive continuous line, like the Maginot Line in France. The main purpose was to provide shelter from fire, and the strong points did in fact serve a useful purpose in reducing casualties.

Nevertheless the discussions in Israel about the line of strong points and the warnings given that it must not be as a static defensive wall, negating the entire philosophy of dashing Israeli armed forces, later gave Sadat an opportunity to claim that he had broken a formidable Israeli fortress. In the meantime Barlev and his political superiors were facing an acute dilemma. They could not match the Egyptians in fire-power and the only alternative was to use the air force. But 'deep penetration' raids into Egypt, and the resultant heavy civilian casualties, provoked Nasser into demanding ever-greater Soviet involvement, including the supply of sophisticated surface-to-air (Sam) missiles which were to prove a problem to the Israeli air force, which could not afford any substantial losses. It was many months before Nasser could be persuaded to call off the mutually exhausting war.

Complacency and a certain arrogance led the Israeli army to underestimate the Egyptian and Syrian forces, with the result that Israel suffered more stunning reverses at the start of the Yom Kippur War in 1973. Nerves were frayed, the main casualty being the once all-conquering, charismatic Moshe Dayan who foresaw disaster. Barlev calmly assessed the situation on the Golan Heights, where the initial Syrian thrust was being blunted by heroic defending by small groups of Israelis. After assuring a worried Golda Meir that the front would hold, he moved to the south, virtually taking over command from the unfortunate, inexperienced General Shmuel Gonen, who was involved in fierce arguments with Sharon. Barlev advised caution while Sharon urged the immediate crossing of the Suez Canal to trap the Egyptian armies. Barlev's views prevailed, so that when the attack did come the Egyptians were not only taken by surprise but the Israeli force was big enough to start a march on Cairo.

After the war, Barlev held a number of top ministerial posts, including police and trade but Knesset politics did not enchant him and he left it with a sense of relief. He loved horses and riding, even after suffering a painful fall. However he welcomed the chance given him at the end of last year by his friend Shimon Peres, now Israeli Foreign Minister, to become Ambassador to Russia. He was delighted at the arrival of hundreds of thousands of Russian Jews in Israel and wanted to work for continued immigration. Although he became ill some time ago, he insisted on accompanying Yitzhak Rabin on the first visit to Moscow. A small, dapper figure, he remained an optimist to the end, still speaking calmly and quietly but always getting to the root of any problem.

(Photograph omitted)

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