General Haim Bar-Lev: The man who Israel trusted in time of need

by Gideon

When I researched material for this article, I was surprised to learn how little information was available about the man who was called twice by the Israeli leadership to instill order and confidence during periods where Israel’s survival was at stake, when the country was on the verge of extinction.

In time of need, the Israeli government trusted Haim Bar-Lev to make a difference.

 There’s a lot more than what’s posted here to write about Bar-Lev’s contribution to Israel’s defense. This article highlights his contribution during two pivotal periods in Israel’s history:  The Six Days War and the Yom Kippur War.

The article is published in memory of  General  Haim Bar-Lev.

 

IDF Chief of Staff David “Dado” Elazar (left), General Haim Bar-Lev (2nd from left). and General Ariel “Arik” Sharon (2nd from right) at the Southern Front during the Yom Kippur War of October 1973

Haim Bar-Lev, spoke in a slow, deliberate, distinctive drawl so instantly recognizable that it attracted the attention of comedians. Yet Bar-Lev’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, Bar-Lev could be as deliberate as a Montgomery and as dashing as a Patton, when the occasion demanded it. – www.independent.co.uk

The first time the Israeli government called on Haim Bar Lev to step in was the government of the Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol  during the stressful days before the Six Days War of June 1967.

In May 1967, massive Arab armies of Egypt, Syria, and Jordan assembled on Israel’s borders ready to attack the small, nineteen years old, Jewish state, and put an end to the Jewish dream for a national home. Itzhak Rabin, the Israeli chief of staff at the time, was under enormous pressure. At one point, at the peak of the preparation for the war, whether because of exhaustion, or because of a nervous breakdown, Rabin collapsed and was in bed for two days. Rabin did not have an official deputy. The person who filled in for him  as the interim top commander was general Ezer Weizmann, then, the Director of Operations of the Israeli army (IDF). Weizmann previously was a the head of the Israeli air force.

The Israeli leadership was uncomfortable with the idea that an air force general would lead a ground campaign against the strong Arab armies. Haim Bar-Lev, who at that time was on a leave form the army and studying in Paris, was called back and was appointed immediately to the position of Deputy Chief of Staff, to command the army in the event that Rabin was unable to do so. Bar-Lev 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.

Itzhak Rabin recovered quickly and led Israel to a swift victory over Egypt, Syria, and Jordan. Rabin retired from the military shortly after the war and Barlev became the eighth chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces. Bar Lev contribution was almost but forgotten as the media focused its attention on Moshe Dayan and Itzhak Rabin, the two heroes of the war.

 

IDF Chief of Staff Itzhak Rabin (right), IDF Deputy Chief of Staff Haim Bar-Lev (2nd from right ), and the commander of the Northern Command David “Dado” Eleazar in the days before the Six Days War of  June 1967.

Haim Bar-Leve played much greater role the second time that he was called to step in on behalf of the Israeli leadership. It was during the Yom Kippur War in October 1973. By that time , Bar-Lev had already retired from the army, after serving as a chief of staff during the difficult period of the war of attrition that follwed the Six Days War. When the Yom Kippur War begun, Bar-Lev was a minister of commerce in Golda Meir‘s government.  

The Yom Kippur War began on October 6, 1973. The strike caught Israel by complete surprise. The military strongholds in the Suez Canal and the Golan Heights were sparsely manned, as were the rear posts. IDF Chief of Staff David Elazar ordered a mobilization of the entire reserve force, but the emergency warehouses, meant among other things to supply reserve forces, were nearly empty; and the regular forces were in near disarray.

The Syrian offensive began by heavily bombarding IDF outposts and civilian communities in the Golan Heights. A Syrian commando force took over the IDF’s stronghold on Mount Hermon shortly after the fighting began, allowing the Syrians to break through the IDF’s northern lineup. Israeli armor divisions attempted to block them, but were only partially successful. By October 7, Syrian tanks were overlooking the Sea of Galilee.

The Golan was a more serious problem than the Suez canal because of its proximity to Israel. On Sunday morning, Elazar, in one of his first major decisions, dispatched a reserve armored division initially destined for Sinai to the Golan instead. He also sent his life-long friend and predecessor as chief of staff, Haim Bar-Lev, to the Northern Command to steady its head, General Yitzhak Hofi, who was questioning whether the Golan could be held.

General Hod (3rd from right), General Bar-Lev (2nd from right ), and General Tal (right) in the Northern Command during the diffcult days of the Yom Kippur War.

It is told that when Haim Bar-Lev walked into the Northern Command the situation seemed chaotic: radio communications  from many different devices, on different channels, loudly transmitted information between the units on the battlefield  and the command center.  Information was exchanged one on top of the other in a manner that it was difficult to make sort it out and sense out of it.

The first thing that Bar-Lev ordered was to turn off all the communication devices, than he asked for a cup of tea, then he pointed to specific communication devices and ordered to turn them back on. In this simple gesture he calmed the situation in the command center and began to stabilize  the defense of the Golan Heights.

On the Sinai front, the IDF had 268 tanks and a reserve armored brigade manning the stronghold line. Many of the military posts were left unmanned, essentially stripping the line of its original purpose – observing and defending the waterfront. The Egyptian offensive began with heavy artillery fire on targets all over Sinai. The Egyptian forces were able to cross the canal in several places and lay down bridges. They then funneled additional forces to the Sinai front. IDF forces attempted to hold them off, but the tanks and fighter jets sent in met heavy antitank and anti-aircraft missile fire and suffered mass losses. By the end of the fighting on October 7, the Egyptians were in control of many of the IDF’s strongholds along the Suez Canal. Meanwhile, Egyptian commando forces were engaged in battle with IDF forces in southern Sinai, and the Israeli Navy was called to the Suez and Eilat bays to fight off the Egyptian Naval forces.

By October 8, the IDF sent three reserve divisions to the southern front and mounted an assault meant to push the Egyptian forces back across the canal. The strike proved unsuccessful, and is believed to have dealt the most devastating morale blow to the IDF, as its finest troops, commanders and battle plans failed to drive the Egyptian forces out. The fighting was also the backdrop for the now infamous “general wars” within the IDF’s top echelon.

Once the situation in the northern front was stabilized, Haim Barlev was sent to the Southern front to replace Shmuel “Gorodish” Gonen as chief of the Southern Command, which defended the Sinai Peninsula. Bar-Lev played a pivotal role in the war. Before his appointment, the Southern front was in disarray to the point of near total collapse and Gonen was proving unable to effectively control the situation. Bar-Lev immediately took charge and worked towards stabilizing the front. His political and negotiating skills also proved instrumental in controlling his field generals who were feuding amongst themselves since each had their own notions, sometimes competing ones, regarding how the war in the South should be carried out. The effect that Bar-Lev’s arrival had on the chaotic Southern command headquarters was described by Gonen’s deputy, Uri Ben-Ari, in testimony to the Israeli military’s historical department:

“Bar-Lev brought calmness on all of us. Finally, there was a feeling that we had a real commander in charge. This feeling spread between us and later also in the battlefield radios like fire. Bar-Lev also managed to calm Gorodish down. Prior to his arrival, general staff meetings were one loud shout out of Gorodish’s mouth. Bar Lev instituted orderly working routines. No one challenged his authority. The country owes much to him. “Dovaleh” went back to being a real war-room, a compartmentalized one. No one (who did not belong there) was allowed entry. Serenity descended on the war room. The general staff officers switched to carrying out their tasks in well-organized shifts. Even Arik (Ariel Sharon)‘s tone of voice changed when Bar Lev arrived.”

Haim Bar-Lev (center) with the Defense Mnister Moshe Dayan to his left, and Ariel “Arik” Sharon in Sinai during the Yom Kippur War.

By October 17, the IDF was able to stretch a floating bridge over the canal and funnel troops to the western part of the sector. Three IDF divisions crossed the canal by October 19 and began making their way towards Ismailiya and the city of Suez, striking at the “seam” between the Egyptian Second Army in the north and the Egyptian Third Army in the south. By the end of the fighting on October 24, the Egyptian armies east of the canal found themselves separated by an Israeli-held area, stretching west of the canal and reaching 62 miles off Cairo.

On the Syrian front, Damascus concentrated its forces on the Damascus-Quneitra road, in an attempt to block any possible advancement by the IDF. The Syrian forces were backed by Moroccan, Iraqi and Jordanian troops. On October 11, the IDF launched a two-way offensive, storming Quneitra en route to Damascus, and fighting to regain control of Mt. Hermon. Despite fierce resistance, the IDF was able to reclaim all the territories taken by the Syrians and create an enclave within Syria and make its way to about 24 miles off Damascus, where it held its forces until the war ended. Mt. Hermon was taken back on October 21.

Even though Haim-Lev’s contribution to the success of the Israeli army (IDF) in turning around an almost certain defeat into a victory, he did not receive the recognition that he deserved for several reasons:

  • Unlike Ariel Sharon, he did not spend much time on public relations to gain political power. He came to do a job. He did the job, and then went back to his previous life as a minister in the Israeli government.
  • The moral in Israel after the war was very low. Israelis did not look for heroes to admire. They looked for people to accuse for the difficult war the country just went through. Haim Bar-Lev was part of a government that led Israel into that war. In the eye of the public he had some responsibility for what had happened.
  • More than his guilt by association, Bar-Lev was held responsible for the poor performance of the fortification line built along the Suez canal. Bar-Lev’s name became synonymous with a line of fortifications on the Suez Canal, which was built under his direction when he was IDF chief of staff from 1968 to 1971. His argument was that the fortifications were never designed, or intended, to stop a frontal attack of the entire Egyptian army, That the purpose of the fortifications was to provide shelter from artillery fire during the war of attrition, and early warning for an oncoming attack, so armored brigades, stationed deep in the Sinai desert, could respond in a timely manner. However, in the public eyes (by both Israelis and Egyptians), the fortifications were seen as an almost impenetrable obstacles. Their failure to stop the Egyptian army, and the ease in which they collapsed, reflected pooriy on the person who constructed them.

Haim Bar-Lev, like his friend, the Chief of Staff  David Elazarwho failed to prepare the army adequately for the war, but turned out to be a great military leader once the war began, lived the rest of his life with this stain on his record. 

Forty-four years later, it is time to remember his successes.

***

Bar-Lev was born in Vienna on Nov. 16, 1924. He was raised in Yugoslavia, immigrating to Eretz Israel in 1939.

He was a member of the Palmach from 1942 to 1948, 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.

During the 1948 War of Independence, he was commander of armored units in the fledgling Israeli army. 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 Armored Brigade, taking his troops from Rafah to the Suez Canal in a dash across the Sinai Peninsula.

Bar-Lev became commanding officer of the Armored Corps, giving it a new concept as a powerful independent force to spearhead spectacular conquests. Preparing himself for still higher posts, Bar-Lev 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. 

Haim Bar-Lev became the 8th Cheif of Staff of the IDF in 1968. On March 8, 1969, Nasser proclaimed the official launch of the War of Attrition, characterized by large-scale shelling along the Suez Canal, extensive aerial warfare and commando raids. As Chief of Staff in 1968, Bar-Lev 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 Weizmann, 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 Bar-Lev Line. 

The IDF could not match the Egyptians in fire-power and the only alternative was to use the air force in deep penetration’raids into Egypt, which resulted in heavy civilian casualties. It 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. Hostilities continued until August 1970 and ended with a ceasefire, the frontiers remaining the same as when the war began, with no real commitment to serious peace negotiations.

As member of the Labor Party and an advocate of compromise with the Arabs, Bar-Lev switched from military life to polities in 1972, but returned to active duty during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. It was during that war that the Bar-Lev Line was breached by Egyptian troops.

He was a member of Knesset from 1977 to 1990, serving on the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee and as chairman of the Knesset subcommittee on the defense budget. He also served as minister of commerce and industry and later as police minister.He retired from the Knesset at the time of the 1992 elections, and was appointed ambassador to Russia, serving until 1994.

At the age of 69, Bar-Lev was admitted to the hospital on May 3, 1994  after returning home from Moscow in a generally weakened state. The hospital reported that medical tests indicated he suffered from muscular dystrophy. He passed away on Many 7, 1994.

“He was a noble knight,” Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said in saluting Bar-Lev at the funeral.

Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, whom Bar-Lev succeeded as IDF chief, said, “He always lived up to the Palmach motto: ‘We are always the first!’ And so he was.”

Retired Gen. Shlomo Gazit called him “one of nature’s real gentlemen.”

Difficult times: Haim Bar-Lev with Golda Meir during a helicopter ride in Sinai- The picture says it all

Haim Bar-Lev observes the battlefront in Sinai during the Yom Kippur War. Moshe Dayn, the Defense Minister is sitting on the right.

Deputy Chief of Staff Haim Bar Lev (left) with the Commander of the Northern Command David “Dado” Elazar (center) and Mano Shaked a Tank Brigade Commander (driving) on the way to the Golan Heights during the Six Days War of 1967

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CHIEF OF STAFF RABIN (CENTER) WITH GENERALS BAR-LEV (LEFT) AND WEIZMANN (RIGHT) AT THE GENERAL HEADQUARTERS IN TEL AVIV DURING THE SIX DAYS WAR

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