They are both politicians, both ex-army officials with deep security credentials who have served on the Knesset’s powerful Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, and both are on the front line of opposition to the Iran nuclear deal resistance spearheaded by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
In a political climate in which nearly the entire mainstream has fallen in line behind Netanyahu on the Iran nuclear issue, Meretz MK Yair Golan and likely future Labor MK Omer Bar-Lev stand out as those likely to lead the charge in challenging the prime minister’s tactics.
Six years ago, as the Barack Obama administration was at the height of talks with Iran to put together the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, barely any of Israel’s senior government or political figures dared to question Netanyahu’s strident opposition to the agreement.
At the time, Netanyahu, with his typical rhetorical flourishes, described a terrifying vision of Tehran secretly building a nuclear weapon while duping the world into complacency. He held the top-secret intelligence in his hands, and nobody second-guessed what he was saying.
Instead, politicians from across nearly the whole the political spectrum, not to mention much of the media, toed the line, hopeful that Netanyahu’s diplomatic skills would convince the US and other world powers to change course. Nobody wanted to be accused of playing spoiler by raising a hue and cry against him at home.
In March 2015, with an election just weeks away, Netanyahu appeared before the US Congress to rail against the deal, angering the White House and severely damaging bipartisan backing for Israel in Washington.
Moments after the speech, then-opposition leader Isaac Herzog gave his own address at home, in which his main issue was the fact that Netanyahu had traveled to the US and endangered ties with Obama.
“Most Israelis agreed with the content of the speech,” though, said then Labor No. 3 Shelly Yachimovich, noting that Herzog would have made “exactly the same speech” as Netanyahu.
Most Israelis, but not all of them.
“The agreement is not optimal and carries with it a number of serious weaknesses that should not be overlooked. However, after signing… it must be said that it actually reduces the direct nuclear threat to the country in the coming years, I daresay, in a dramatic fashion,” Barlev, then an opposition back-bencher for Labor, wrote in a lengthy Facebook post a few months later.
“Anyone who claims that the agreement increases the risk from the nuclear threat is doing so out of ignorance or, alternatively, knows the conditions well and is knowingly misleading an entire public,” he added, noting that none of Israel’s leading newspapers had agreed to print his post as a column.
Barlev, 68, knows something about security. In an on-and-off military career that spanned three decades, he served as a soldier, left the army, studied agriculture and international relations, returned to the army to command the General Staff Reconnaissance Unit — Sayeret Matkal, 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, marking the beginning of the Peace Now movement.
Like his father, former IDF chief of staff and government minister Haim Bar-Lev, Omer Barlev joined the Knesset as part of the Labor party. Throughout its history, Labor has been stacked with former generals and military commanders, but in the last decade has concentrated on social issues, making Barlev the party’s top bit’honist — security specialist — and arguably in the whole viable center-left camp. (Barlev bristles at the idea, telling The Times of Israel that assuming party boss Merav Michaeli, who has served on the Knesset’s Foreign affairs and Defense Committee, has no security chops is “chauvinistic.”)
Golan, 58, is no less versed in what it takes to defend the country. Golan joined the Paratroopers Brigade in 1980, serving as both a combat soldier and an officer in the unit. In the 1990s, he was sent to the IDF’s officers school to command a battalion there before moving to fill a variety of senior positions in the IDF, including head of the Nahal Brigade, head of the West Bank Division during the tail end of the Second Intifada, head of the Home Front Command and head of the Northern Command, before taking over as deputy chief of staff in December 2014.
When Barlev wrote his post in support of the nuclear deal, Golan, 58, was still deputy chief of staff of the IDF and thus forbidden to speak out publicly. Six months later, he would make a name for himself as a future leading voice of the left with a controversial Holocaust Remembrance Day speech in which he compared trends in Israeli society to those of pre-World War II Germany, sparking a firestorm of criticism.
Barlev, who has been in and out of the Knesset since 2013, looks set to rejoin the 24th Knesset, holding the No. 2 spot on Labor’s slate. Golan, who first entered the Knesset in 2019, is number 3 on Meretz’s roster of Knesset candidates. While not all polls show both parties getting in, if they do, Barlev and Golan will be two of the top military people and could be leading voices as Netanyahu seeks to stymie plans by the Biden administration to re-enter the JCPOA.
The Times of Israel spoke to both of them, separately, about how the military views the nuclear deal, why nobody is offering alternate takes to Netanyahu’s point of view and whether a new JCPOA is possible. What follows are those interviews, edited for brevity and clarity.
In the lead-up to the nuclear deal from 2013 to 2015, did IDF officers express opinions that the deal was ultimately good for Israel in real time?
Golan: Unequivocally. When the agreement was signed in 2015, we, the IDF’s General Staff, read the deal and said, “This is not a perfect agreement, but it is a good agreement. It’s an agreement that takes the nuclear program years back.” This is what we wanted. This is an extraordinary achievement. And that includes [then-]chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot, he knows that well.
Barlev: IDF officers said so in real time in a confidential Knesset committee. They gave their professional observations to us, MKs, and I have no doubt that they also expressed it in the professional military forums.
What of Netanyahu’s claim that despite the agreement, Iran cheated and secretly enriched uranium until 2018?
Golan: If the Iranians were enriching covertly, they could have done so with or without the agreement. Under the regime of the JCPOA we knew, for sure, that they got rid of tons of enriched material. We knew for sure that they froze centrifuges. And as for Netanyahu’s hints that they acted covertly, I’m not saying they did not. I do not presume the Iranians to act in good faith or speak truthfully. What I am saying is that the agreement has been an amazing achievement for the State of Israel and people are not being told that.
Why do none of the former IDF brass in the political arena or other politicians publicly contradict Netanyahu on the Iran deal?
Golan: I find it sad. There are enough people who know the intel. The current official policy, according to which returning to the nuclear agreement endangers Israel, is a deception toward the Israeli public. When making an agreement with the enemy, some compromise must be reached. Obama did that and reached a not-so-bad deal. The JCPOA is not perfect, because there is no perfect deal.
But Obama’s deal achieved things we could not have achieved otherwise. It took over eight tons of low-enriched material and reduced the amount to 300 kilograms, and caused [Iran] to give up the medium-enriched material. The agreement imposed restrictions on additional materials, such as heavy water production, and postponed the construction of a uranium metal plant until 2030. The agreement prevented the Iranians from going in the direction of a plutonium reactor.”
Barlev: I think others did not read the agreement, and if they did, they did not understand. This was my opinion and unfortunately, reality proved me right. From the moment the Americans exited the JCPOA, the Iranians stepped closer to a nuclear weapons and they do so openly, not even trying to hide. There is a clause in the agreement that says that if one party leaves the agreement, the others are free to act.
In 2015, after publishing criticism of the deal on Facebook, you (Barlev) traveled to Washington and met Rob Malley, one of the lead negotiators of the nuclear deal, at the invitation of J Street.
Barlev: I was wavering at the time, whether to go to Washington, DC, or not. A year later, when the JCPOA was already in effect, J Street suggested I come again, and I refused. Our internal struggles must be waged here, in Israel.
So why did you go to Washington, DC, in the first place?
Barlev: Because as soon as Netanyahu gave that speech in front of a Joint Session of Congress and turned the Iranian issue into a political issue, two weeks before the Israeli elections, I was resolved. However, I’d rather handle arguments over defense between us and in Hebrew, not there.
And now, when it is clear that you do not agree with Netanyahu about the JCPOA?
Barlev: I will present my positions here, in Israel. I will try to make an impact here. In 2015, when Netanyahu brought the debate into the US Congress, I felt obligated to present a different position. Also, at the current stage, we do not know what exactly Biden’s policy is and what direction Netanyahu will go in.
Is it realistic to go back to the 2015 agreement given all that has happened in the intervening years?
Barlev: The original agreement did not deal with the Iranian ballistic missile program and terrorist activity by Iran throughout the region. Looking back at 2015, if Netanyahu has been less hostile to Obama, and if he had not confronted him in Congress, then perhaps Obama would have shared info with Israel and we might have reached a better deal. Yet, a bad agreement is better than no agreement.
Golan: I am not saying that it will be simple or easy to re-enter the deal. The US broke the pact and it’s clear that if they return, a follow-up agreement will have to address the issues lacking in the original: oversight, the duration of the agreement, the ballistic missile program and terror activity throughout the region.
How will the Americans be able to bring Iran back into the pact?
Golan: I doubt that additional economic sanctions can work. The Iranians moved to the production of faster centrifuges while under severe economic sanctions. If one wants to cause their enemy to change their behavior, they can’t do it without threats and a willingness to use force. The Iranians won’t go back voluntarily. What’s stopping the Americans from taking down an electric power facility every week until they agree to re-enter the deal?
It may look like I’m oversimplifying things, but you can look at the example of Iraq following the First Gulf War. From 1991 to 2003, the Americans kept Iraq on a short leash. You want to survive? Stay in check. You can predict that the Iranians won’t go along with this happily. Only pressure and threats of war will get them back into the deal. When the Americans decided to assassinate Soleimani, they took him out. This was a very deterrent move, since he was well-protected.
What should Netanyahu be doing?
Barlev: He should try to influence the Biden administration, to persuade them that there can be a better agreement. Not leave it to the Americans only to negotiate. It makes a difference when some of the analysis comes from Israelis as our people know how to stress certain points.
ToI staff and Judah Ari Gross contributed to this report.