InterviewA Buchris story: The rise, fall, and comeback of an Israeli hero
A Buchris story: The rise, fall, and comeback of an Israeli hero
Raised in a large, poor immigrant family and illiterate till the age of 10, Pinhas Buchris climbed his way up Israel’s military and cyber industry ladder till he fell off - literally - and wound up in a coma. Now he’s back - and more determined than ever
It's hard not to marvel at the sight of the Buchris family's new home in Ramat Hasharon: entire walls made of glass through which the light that penetrates floods the interior spaces, a pool in the yard, meticulous vegetation, luxurious armchairs, works of art on the walls and unique design details scattered in the living room and guest room.
It can be assumed that this is the good life that Pinhas Buchris (66) aspired towards, after decades of life as a combat fighter, as the commander of the cyber units of the IDF and as the director general of the Ministry of Defense. And yet, a simple job he did at home - at the previous one actually - almost led to his death. The retired IDF Brigadier general, who participated in the rescue operation in Entebbe and the elimination of Abu Jihad in Tunis and in numerous operations in hostile countries, came very close to death because of a fall from a ladder.
"It happened exactly a year ago," Buchris recalls, "I climbed a ladder to fix something in the yard and I didn't stabilize it well. A moment later I flew off it headfirst, straight into a concrete surface, and lost consciousness. Idan (son of Yodafat Harel-Buchris , his partner) heard the fall, ran to me, lifted my head and saw that my jaw was crushed and that I wasn't breathing. He pulled my jaw forward and basically released my trachea so I could breathe. That's how he saved my life."
"He broke every possible bone in the skull, none of them remained intact," says Yodfat (50). "When the doctors saw him, some said he wouldn't last 24 hours, others gave him 72 hours. The estimates were that there was no chance that he would wake up, that he wouldn't remember anything from his past, that he wouldn't speak, that he would be disabled. He was supposed to undergo ten surgeries, but in the end he recovered by himself. After he was released, seven therapists came to our house every day, and some still come, because he had to learn everything all over again. Even to walk. But this is Buchris, this is the man. He is stubborn, he doesn't give up."
"I didn't have a brain," Buchris continues in an almost emotionless description, "the doctors didn't give me a chance to live. No one believed I would get out of it. When I woke up from the coma, reality was distorted, mainly my long-term and short-term memory got mixed up. My body betrayed me, it was very unpleasant, but I had an inner belief that I would overcome it. It was difficult for me to return to startups, but when I went back to meet with them and saw that my mind was working - I realized that I was fine. All in all, it was a random incident. I wanted to fix something completely routine, but I did not follow safety instructions and I found myself planted in the concrete. I was injured due to personal negligence, and for that I paid a price. What's more, it happened a little after Yodfat and I found the new house - so I basically said 'bye' to Yodfat, I went into a coma for two months, and when I came back the house was ready."
"I am one of the founders of Israel's cyber capabilities"
Buchris’ military resume includes, among other things, the position of deputy commander of the General Staff Reconnaissance Unit (Sayeret Matkal); commander of Unit 81, the technological unit of the Intelligence Corps; commander of the special operations array of the Intelligence Corps; and commander of Unit 8200. When he was released from the army in 2002, the business chapter of his life began, but looking from the side it seems that he has not yet fully found his place. He first joined the Apex Partners investment fund as an independent partner and was a partner in the team that led its investment in Bezeq. At the same time, he served as the representative in Israel of the businessman Poju Zabludowicz, co-founder, president and CEO of the Tamares Group. In 2007, he was appointed CEO of the Ministry of Defense, until 2010. Then he was CEO of the Bazan Group, a position he held for only two years.
"Bazan is actually several companies, and I felt that the involvement of some of the shareholders in Bezan (then under the control of David Federmann and Idan Ofer) was not correct. There was a difficulty in the conduct, when each company belonged to a different owner and everyone wanted to be involved in his own company. I managed to bring a balance between the companies and I left when I felt that I had to leave. I wanted to open a new chapter," he sums up succinctly.
In 2015, he returned to the world of investments, as a managing partner in the venture capital fund State of Mind Ventures, which he founded with Yuval Baharav and Nir Adler, but after raising two funds he chose not to continue managing the third fund. Yodfat, whom he married in 2010, has been the Managing Director of venture capital fund Blumberg Capital since 2018, and over the years they have invested, together and separately, millions of shekels in startups, mainly in the cybersecurity field.
The well-known exit that his name is associated with is that of the cyber company Adallom, founded among others by Assaf Rappaport, who later founded Wiz. Buchris was the first investor in Adallom and the chairman of the company, which was sold to Microsoft in 2015, just three years after its founding, for $320 million. "Assaf and his partners were sitting here in the living room, and after a dialogue between me and Yodfat, we said that we would invest our money and help them raise money through friends," he recalls. "The Sequoia fund's investment in Adallom was born in our kitchen. I told the founders, 'You don't sign an investment document with anyone.' Assaf was scared but I didn't give up. I sent one of the Sequoia people a WhatsApp message which said that the negotiations will be conducted at my house. After the meeting at my place, Sequoia decided to put in the first check."
How was the interaction with the Adallom founders Assaf Rappaport, Ami Luttwak and Roy Reznik?
"It was a difficult process, they are three ‘wild’ guys, it wasn't easy to manage them and you had to give them challenging tasks so that it wouldn't be too easy for them. But during the dialogue, they also learned to appreciate you."
They later formed Wiz. Why didn't you join that venture?
"I didn't want to, and that's fine with me. When you work with startups, you have to create a group of different people to work with. I never regret an investment I didn't make. The righteousness of the road leads you to where you need to be."
What is it like to work with your spouse?
"A mutual friend introduced us, and when we met I understood her strengths and we became a couple (the two married in 2010, and have a joint ten-year-old son and five adult children from their previous marriages). Yodfat has the ability to make amazing intuitive decisions that I do not have. She identifies if something among the entrepreneurs is creaking, and what are their chances of succeeding down the road. We look for startups for investments and are focused on Israeli companies. When we decide that there is a team worth betting on, we enter into a deeper dialogue with them, put our hands in our pockets, write a check and accompany the company until the exit."
What else excites you about cyber? The field is flooded with a lot of companies that do roughly the same thing.
"I am one of the founders of cyber capabilities in Israel. When I was commander of the Unit 81, I realized that there was a way to bring valuable intelligence to the State of Israel without risking and sending people to places where it is not clear how they will return from. Through teams of young geniuses, we developed capabilities that proved the it was possible to plant something remotely and know about every conversation, even an intimate one, which takes place at a home - and to decide what to fish out of all this. At first there was complete opposition to this, but I, with my determination, did not give up. I convinced the head of intelligence, and then valuable intelligence started arriving. And in 1997 I brought the cyber capabilities to Unit 8200."
"They threw me in the garbage - that's all"
Even 20 years after leaving the IDF, and after many years in the world of venture capital, it is easy to recognize where Buchris’ heart remains - and where a significant amount of insult remains. The boy who grew up in a poor family to parents who immigrated from Tunisia and worked his way to the top on his own, feels that despite all the successes he recorded, there were quite a few times when he wasn't really accepted, nor did he get the credit he deserved. "I was an officer in the General Staff Reconnaissance Unit (Sayeret Matkal)," he says, "and commander of unit 81 and 8200, Director General of the Ministry of Defense, and they threw me in the garbage - that's all."
Why did they throw you in the garbage?
"Because I was an unusual character, and when I make a decision, I make it happen. Many superiors didn't like it, and as a result didn't want to help. But as a child who in the fourth grade went to his neighbor and asked her to teach him to read, I realized that there is no limit to chutzpah and that anything can be accomplished. These are the tools I received, and with them I continued in life. I am happy that these were my tools, because with them I promoted projects in the army and the Ministry of Defense."
It’s easy to understand why this is objectionable.
"A lot of people were afraid of my personal power, as someone who decides on projects. And when I decided and implemented, naturally I got in the way of other projects and hurt people and millions that they could have profited. But this did not enter into my judgment for a moment, because it is not a national judgment. As a child in a family with seven siblings who was going to bed at night without food, you say 'What the f**k, what do you need another 10 million or 20 million? For what, so they can eat two steaks every evening?' It didn't interest me at all. I put aside all financial considerations."
Even in 8200 you were an exception, as a fighter who got to command a cyber unit of super nerds.
"In 1981 I was accepted naturally, because Unit 81 and Sayeret Matkal did many projects together. In 8200, on the other hand, they didn't know how to deal with me. They didn't want me that much, because I came from the 'enemies'. They told me, 'Be the deputy commander of the unit', and I answered 'I won't be a deputy, I'm coming to be the commander of 8200'. The officers there were under unreal pressure, because I had a terrible reputation of someone who makes sure that what he believe in happens. I'm not one to give up."
How did you even get there?
"When I wanted to be released from the army for the first time, Amnon Lipkin-Shahak told me, 'You are not being released, be the commander of 8200.' I asked, 'What is that anyway?' I didn't want to. But I thank God that I agreed because that's where my eyes were opened. It allowed me to build a different plan for the unit, which took it to a completely different place. 8200 was a fascinating story, because you command it and know that the entire layer below you, all the colonels below you, oppose you."
What did they oppose you on?
"8200 was not at all in the cyber world at the time. The person who introduced it to cyber was yours truly, in 1997. I gave them projects to do and suddenly they saw that they could do it and that they were bringing super high-quality intelligence to the State of Israel and they just fell in love with it. At 8200, they know who Pinhas Buchris is, for better and for worse."
What do you mean by “for better and for worse”?
"The good part is when you bring them a new idea that at first they don't believe in - and then convince them that it works. They climb uphill and when they see that the results are amazing they pounce on it and make it happen. It's wonderful. The bad part is that there are sometimes irrelevant objections. You often have to give up and get to the point you wanted via a longer road, until they are convinced and do it."
"For example, a project with Unit 81. At first they didn't want it, and it cost the State of Israel a lot of unnecessary time. When they realized that I was right, the integration between 8200 and 81 improved significantly and this boosted Israel's capabilities to a very high level."
What is your position regarding the social role of 8200, which has become a stronghold of the children of the upper classes?
"8200 has always been a separate country within the IDF, but this image is disconnected from reality. The Atidim program (for training youth from the periphery for the unit) started when we sent young guys to the periphery to meet children who needed help with their homework. This is one of several programs to connect children to 8200, and I strongly trust its recruitment and screening program. The entrance exams for the unit is something I haven't seen anywhere else in the world. It's great for Israeli society because it challenges people and everyone wants to come."
It sounds nice, but in reality the unit has become a career path and the mirror for the startup scene, and not everyone really has the same chance of being accepted.
"Personally, the way I grew up, no one gave me a chance at anything. I started well below zero. But it was precisely when I enlisted in the army that many doors opened for me."
"Bread and sugar was our abundance"
Buchris is the third in a family of seven sons from village of Yavne'el, near Tiberias. His parents immigrated from Tunisia in 1952. His father, Jacob, was a handyman at Kibbutz Kinneret, his mother, Mima, worked in housekeeping and cleaning. "Apparently I had a very strong personal motivation," he says. "Until the age of ten I could not read and write and I was thrown from one school to another."
Why were you thrown out?
"There are some things you just don't forget: the morning I was thrown out, it happened after I had collected small droppings from fruit trees, and when the teacher (who was a soldier) who taught us turned around, I threw them right in her face. In retrospect, I know it was difficult for me because I couldn't read. In the end, I found a teacher on my own who agreed to teach me how to read and write. Her name was Hadassah and she was the grandmother of musician Keren Peles. Keren's father, Doron, is a childhood friend of mine, like my brother. I don't know where I got the determination from, but I probably already had this stupid audacity to knock on the door and ask Hadassah if she would agree to teach me. She agreed, and after school I would go to her, sit, learn to read, and do homework. In total, only ten meters separated our houses, but it took me to another place. In the eighth grade, I was already one of the outstanding students at school."
And you and all your brothers went to boarding schools.
"Our father worked hard and took care of houses in Kibbutz Kinneret, our mother cleaned houses in our town, she would leave the house at eight in the morning and return at seven in the evening. We children would come home, get along, eat if there was food around and sometimes there wasn't. Both parents thought that we would get an education and become good people if we studied at a boarding school. It was impossible to study in our house, there wasn't even a table to do homework on. Two of my brothers went to a school for naval officers. I studied at Mosenson boarding school in Hod Hasharon, another brother studied near Netanya. I started from nothing and came a long way."
What accomplishments of yours did your parents get to see?
"When they came to the ceremony at Bahad 1 base when I graduated from the officers' course with honors, they were bursting with pride. I brought my mother to the graduation ceremony when I resigned as director general of the Ministry of Defense and she was very excited. She was a woman who spoke little but said a lot with her body language. By her body language you knew if she agreed or disagreed, liked or disliked, and what she expected to happen. This is how she managed her seven sons, and every two years a new brother was born in the house."
Was it tough growing up in a house of seven boys?
"There was a huge war of survival. We were very powerful, we all trained physically and were strong, so the bigger ones beat the smaller ones. You learn to grow up and cope in a Spartan society, where the strong survive and the weak cry. And all this in a house where many times we went to bed without food. It was a house where you wait for the bread to be brought because I liked to cut off the end of it, put sugar inside and eat it to have energy. That was our ‘abundance’, bread with sugar. But we got this far and everything is fine."
How does a child from the periphery, a son of immigrants from Tunisia get to the elite Sayeret Matkal unit?
"From the age of zero it was clear to me that I wanted to enlist in the army. I didn't know why, but I made my way. I was accepted by mistake for a pilot's course, I realized that I didn't want it, and they didn't let me leave until I failed the piper test. When I was dismissed, someone shouted at me, 'You have to go to Sayeret Matkal. I arrived at the induction center and said I wanted Sayeret Matkal. They said: 'They aren't recruiting now'. I showed up there every morning for three weeks. They saw that I wasn't leaving, they told me, 'Well, go do the tests.'
"There were three guys waiting for me who asked me who I knew in the unit. I answered that I didn't know anyone. These were the times when a friend brought a friend. They asked me to do such and such exercises, until they said, 'Do push-ups,' and then they moved to another room to talk. They came back after 15 minutes, and I was still doing push-ups. They asked in surprise, 'Why didn't you stop?' And in the evening they called to tell me that I was accepted. Completely by chance, they were just shocked that someone was doing push-ups non-stop."
Where did you get the strength from?
"Apart from the fact that I had to survive with my brothers, growing up in our town we also worked in agriculture doing very hard physical work: picking stones, catching poultry, working in the hay. It was nature's gym, and I arrived in the army very strong. All my brothers were strong."
"Not to be the soldier who was afraid in Entebbe"
On Sunday this week, Buchris received the President's Award for his "contribution to Israel's security and economic resilience", for his activity in the economic-social sector and his service as a fighter and commander. Among other life-threatening missions, he was at the center of the Entebbe operation in 1976 to rescue the Israelis who were hijacked aboard the Air France plane which was taken to Uganda. Although it may not have been Buchris’ most dangerous mission, it is one of the few known to the public.
In 1988, Buchris was also part of a military patrol that assassinated Abu Jihad, the head of the PLO's military wing, in Tunis. This is the city where his parents and older brother were born, and Bucharis says that years later, while visiting his roots with his mother, he tried to locate the house where the assassination took place. "It was amazing to see things during the day that you saw at night," he says. "As part of the preparation for the operation, the Mossad brought photos of the houses in the neighborhood and we studied every street there, until when I arrived in Tunis I felt I knew the trees, the intersections, the houses, everything. When we walked down the street towards Abu Jihad's house, I felt like I had already been there."
How much does fear play a role in such moments?
"There was an element of fear, but I overcame it. To a certain extent, Entebbe was more frightening. Fear does not wear out with the operations, it only sharpens abilities. You develop tools to deal with all kinds of surprises."
"In Entebbe, we had to disguise ourselves as Ugandan soldiers with spotted uniforms in Idi Amin's Mercedes. When we approached the terminal, we suddenly saw two soldiers signaling us to stop. Yoni Netanyahu, who was sitting on the right side of the Mercedes, killed the right soldier, and the left one started to run away. Someone shouted in the car, 'Buchris shoot!'. I had a machine gun and I shot this soldier. It surprised us, because we had to start the assault on the terminal 50 meters before the planned point. This was a significant surprise, but within seconds we understood what had to be done. After a few minutes, all the hostages were in our hands. All of operation happened in the first five minutes. It was an insanely exciting operation."
Returning to the issue of fear, you were only 20 years old then.
"In Entebbe, I was the only one with a massive weapon. The only one who could fight properly. And when our vehicles arrived and stopped and everyone wanted to charge, the strap of the machine gun got tangled in my seatbelt. I tried to free myself, and I didn’t succeed at first. In the end I succeeded and I got outside to run, but now the question was do you know where to go? The unit was already running ahead of me inside. Luckily I knew the building, and after a few minutes I joined them.
"But this moment of confrontation, if you don't experience it, you don't know what fear is. Suddenly you find yourself alone, next to the jeeps, and there's no one to consult with what to do. You try to move your legs, and from fear they don't want to carry you. You feel like you can't walk, as if you were walking on a treadmill. Then I said to myself what I always say: 'Buchris run!'. And suddenly I got up and started running. Only after a few bursts of shooting did my confidence return and I went back to walking normally.
"And the fear was also there when I entered the building. The squad in front of me had already entered and I made all the agreed signs so that they wouldn't shoot me, but oh God, you don't know if they'll realize it's you. After all, we were all in Ugandan soldiers' uniforms. I myself walked through the bodies of soldiers with clothes like ours and for a moment I was afraid they were our soldiers."
And in Tunisia, were you already experienced?
"There, before the mission, I gathered all the fighters in a room and I shared with them the fear experiences I had and how I overcame them. After the operation, fighters came up to thank me because they felt the same way. That's exactly the problem, no one wants to tell that they had weaknesses and that they were afraid. When soldiers approached me to say thank you, it proved to me how correct my intuitions were."
I want to go back to the moment when you talk to yourself and say out loud "Buchris run."
"I couldn't afford to be the soldier who was afraid in Entebbe. And when I talk to myself I get completely different capabilities."
Do you talk to yourself a lot?
"In many operations I talked to myself to dare to do difficult things. And it works. There are very special operations, where you have to push yourself to the limit of your abilities. Then you constantly explain to yourself why you can do it."
"For example, when we wanted to return captured soldier Ron Arad. We followed a South Lebanese named Johad Caspi, we saw that he comes twice a week to his greenhouses in South Lebanon and we set up an operation. It was clear that in order to get to the greenhouses in daylight you have to cross several Hezbollah checkpoints. And when you get to the checkpoints they check you from all directions . They don't recognize anything, but it's very scary. Because I was the commander of the operation, I sat in the front of the vehicle, with the driver and another fighter. You start conducting an operation like this when you talk to yourself about how not to be afraid and just do it."
What do you say to yourself?
"You convince yourself that you are the strongest force at every meeting point. We are 16 fighters, at the Hezbollah checkpoints there are four or five fighters. You tell yourself that you can handle any situation that develops and move on to the next point, because you are the strongest force in the mission."
You could get hurt or die.
"But in the end I came out with the upper hand. It's not luck but the development of an intuition that allows me to leave a dangerous place and take over another place. I don't think I ever had a dilemma as to whether I was built for it. All the operations I did I really wanted to do. In the Abu Jihad operation, I had just graduated from the Technion, and Boogie (Ya’alon, then the commander of the patrol) pressed me to come and be his lieutenant. When I saw that I wasn't going to be part of the action, I told Boogie, 'I'm not staying here, I want to participate'. And one week before the operation I joined."
"A crazy guy like Buchris did it"
Buchris’ stubbornness and fearlessness, as well as his tendency to confrontations, also accompanied him in his significant public role as Director General of the Ministry of Defense under Amir Peretz, and later under Ehud Barak. "When Amir Peretz brought me from Apex he didn't know me at all, he didn't know who I was. I was more in touch with Ehud Barak, but there wasn't an intense direct contact with him either. And there were situations when he was the Minister of Defense that I had to confirm things with him, like Iron Dome."
Barak didn't want the Iron Dome?
"Not right away. I knew I would only convince him when I had success. I built a team that practiced with Iron Dome, trained and did exercises. Then he told me, 'Listen, we need to leave Iron Dome because we need to promote something else.' I replied, 'Iron Dome costs less and I know how to build things'. In 2009 we did an experiment with Rafael and the Aerospace Industry, which succeeded at great levels and the tool became operational. This was my parting gift from the Ministry of Defense."
Iron Dome is publicly identified with Amir Peretz and Danny Gold and others.
"I don't quarrel with anyone, anyone who wants credit will take it. But the one who pushed the Iron Dome and thanks to him it happened is yours truly. Praise for the Iron Dome should go to Amir Peretz, Pinhas Puchris, and the defense industries."
What was Peretz's involvement?
"As the Director General of the Ministry of Defense, I pushed this locomotive uphill, but Amir took this locomotive and put it on the track. When after a few months Barak replaced him, Amir said to me: 'You don't give up, complete the Iron Dome.' I said 'don't worry, I'm doing it'. He has common sense, he conducted meetings no less well than others. His simplicity was also his power."
And Ehud Barak?
"I went to him because priorities had to be changed in the office. Many of his friends wanted to push missiles against missiles of all kinds of American industries that I didn't agree with. I told Barak, 'I'm going to meet with the industry in the United States. I'll come back with a conclusion and that's what we'll do.'"
The establishment of the IDF training campus is also a source of pride for you.
"This is a defining event in itself because the whole world opposed it, including the IDF and the Ministry of Finance. But when you analyze the demography in Israel, you realize that the most neglected region is the Negev. You see the takeover of the Bedouins and understand that if you don't change the situation there is no Negev in the country. When the training campus was opened, it was a wonderful feeling, a powerful inner satisfaction that I can't explain. The whole world opposed it, and a madman like Pinhas Buchris decided that he was doing it, and did it. It did an amazing thing for the army, it boosted the training capabilities significantly."
Do you feel like you didn't get the credit you deserved? Were you excited when you were notified you would be receiving the President's Award?
"When the President called to tell me, I was very excited. This is the state's approval of my hard work in all kinds of issues, which were not expressed in any form. The award is the state's recognition of the efforts I made and the positions I filled and the thoughts I used to do things that are good for Israel, economically and security-wise.
"The credit for the operational activities is a priceless credit, but I had more than enough satisfaction there. It fell to me to lead a large number of operations beyond enemy lines and to think of additional ideas on how to produce other operations, even if it is impossible to talk about them."
So what would you like written on your tombstone?
"It doesn't speak to me at all. As far as I'm concerned, let them write 'the man did nothing'. I just want to continue to be in demand and relevant in this world."