Hebron evacuation shows Netanyahu, Barak are retaining their secretive past
With cabinet ministers still reeling from the PM's cladestine tactics in clearing the recently established outpost, the premier and his close ally were attending a ceremony marking 40 years since a daring Sayeret Matkal covert operation.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak met on Thursday morning. No, it wasn't a diplomatically or security-themed session, but a fighters' reunion, commemorating 40 years since operation "Isotope," in which elite Sayeret Matkal special forces released the Sabena plane hijacked by Palestinian terrorists. How symbolic it was that the event took place just 24 hours after the Sayeret commander and his soldier completed yet another clandestine operation – this time, the evacuation of the Hebron house which settlers had taken over.
In the morning meeting, Barak and Netanyahu reminisced on the operation. Barak, the commander, spoke of Lieutenant Bibi; Netanyahu, the subordinate, remembered Lieutenant Colonel Barak; both men cracked jokes at Yaakov Tzur – currently a professor of agriculture in Jerusalem's Hebrew University, and at the time a reserves soldier for the elite military unit, who had started working as an El Al security guard three months prior to the fateful operation.
Tzur, one of the only members of the Sayeret Matkal team trained to use a pistol, landed just in time for the mission after flying over from London on a security detail. He was immediately given a white overall and attached to Lieutenant Bibi Netanyahu's tram. A few minutes before the break-in, an embarrassed Tzur asked if he could relieve himself. "The bathrooms were occupied during the entire flight," he said, and proceeded to relieve himself under the hijacked plane.
Netanyahu seemed loose among his Sayeret friends Thursday morning. But, aside from the jokes and good vibes, he was also careful to be appear too affectionate toward Barak. When the ex-fighters went on stage for a joint photo, the photographers asked Barak and Netanyahu to pose for a separate photo, but the premier made an elegant escape.
In light of the bitterness expressed by several Likud ministers over Netanyahu and Barak's decision to clear the Hebron outpost, one could surmise that the prime minister preferred to keep a low profile in regards to his close alliance with the defense minister. While photos later released by the Prime Minister's Office and Barak's bureau depicted the two sitting next to each other in the crowd, all the pictures taken of the on-stage photo-op were of the two among the rest of the veterans.
After all, cabinet ministers were dumbfounded when they heard that special police forces cleared the house mid-Wednesday. The main reason for this sense of surprise was the debate held on the issue at the Prime Minister's Office the previous evening. Ministers Benny Begin and Moshe Ya'alon, who had attended that meeting, were under the impression that even if the house is evacuated, the operation won't take place before Passover.
"The debate lasted into the late hours," Ya'alon said. "We didn't reach an agreement, but there was an understanding that there was no need to evacuate immediately since the clearing order was given a 30-day extension. We felt Netanyahu was going to proceed debating the issue and would find a consensual and peaceful solution."
However, the following morning Barak arrived at Netanyahu's office for a private meeting. As in other cases in the past, Barak and Netanyahu – the boys from the Sayeret – reached their own secret agreement. Netanyahu gave Barak the "green light" for the operation, without updating Begin and Ya'alon.
Even one hour later, at the cabinet meeting on gas prices, Netanyahu asked the ministers to avoid discussing the Hebron house, never bothering to tell them that in two hours police officers were to raid the outpost and evacuate the squatters. Ya'alon even managed to tell Army Radio, following the meeting, that the evacuation wasn't near. Shortly after, the deputy PM heard in amazement as the newscast of that same radio station announced that the house had been cleared.