Still Fighting Over Entebbe

Uri Dromi
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Uri Dromi

"Sayeret matkal b'entebbe: Ha'eyduiot, hamismakhim, ha'uvdot" ("Sayeret Matkal at Entebbe: The Testimonies, Documents, Facts"), compiled and edited by Iddo Netanyahu, Yedioth Ahronoth, Sifrei Hemed, 718 pages, NIS 98

The echoes of this summer's clash between the Netanyahu family and Moshe (Muki) Betzer over who deserves credit for Operation Entebbe have barely died down and the battle is raging again. For those of you who have forgotten: Betzer, one of the senior commanders of the elite Sayeret Matkal commando unit, claims that while the rescue plans were being drawn up, Yoni Netanyahu, the commander of the unit, was in the midst of a training exercise in Sinai, so it was his deputy, Betzer, who did most of the planning. Another claim that has infuriated the Netanyahus for years is that Yoni strayed from the plan by opening fire on a Ugandan guard. What was meant to be a stealthy operation thus turned chaotic, it is claimed, and the Matkal force lost its element of surprise. Netanyahu did this despite the entreaties of Betzer, who was sitting beside him in the black Mercedes.

Betzer has missed no opportunity to publicize these claims. They also appear in his book, "Secret Soldier: The Autobiography of Israel's Greatest Commando," which was published in English in 1996.

This book by Yoni's youngest brother, Iddo Netanyahu, is actually two books. The first is an attempt, impressive in scope, to reconstruct what happened in those days in the summer of 1976, from the hijacking of the Air France plane to its return to Israel with the freed hostages aboard. Netanyahu has collected testimony from 50 people who were involved in the operation, which was actually called Operation Thunderbolt by the army, and has woven it into a story that is practically drowning in detail. But this part is only an introduction to the second, more important one, in which Netanyahu gets down to the real challenge: ripping Betzer's arguments to shreds. Betzer cares nothing for truth, he charges, and has no compunction about distorting it.

Rashomon-style accounts of military battles and war have been around since the dawn of history. The Greek historian Thucydides, who lived in the 5th century B.C.E., encountered this problem when he sat down to write the history of the Athenian-Spartan war: "My conclusions have cost me some labor from the want of coincidence between accounts of the same occurrences by different eye-witnesses, arising sometimes from imperfect memory, sometimes from undue partiality for one side or the other," he wrote ("The History of the Peloponnesian War").

In the case of Operation Entebbe, all the documents and books are ultimately based on the testimonies of the people who participated in it. There are no "neutral" sources that explain what happened there. Two publications - the report compiled by the history department of the Israel Defense Forces, and Avigdor Shahan's "Operation Yonatan, Formerly Thunderbolt" - come closest to that definition. According to Uri Saguy, commander of the Golani force that was airlifted to Entebbe, Shahan's book is the best and most accurate account published to date.

Memories and decisions

The trouble is that neither of these sources back up the Netanyahu version of events. So what is one to do? One option is to follow in the footsteps of another historian from the days of yore, Plutarch, author of "Nine Greek Lives." While preparing to write about his first subject, Lycurgus, Plutarch is confronted by multitudinous and sometimes conflicting information. His solution: "Notwithstanding this confusion and obscurity, we shall endeavor to compose the history of his life, adhering to those statements which are least contradicted, and depending upon those authors who are most worthy of credit."

Iddo Netanyahu does not adopt this balanced approach, however, because it would leave Betzer with some of his reputation intact. Netanyahu's goal is to mow him down. No prisoners are taken in the war of memory. Thus, without even realizing it, he adopts the method of Thucydides, who wrote: "With reference to the speeches in this history, some were delivered before the war began, others while it was going on; some I heard myself, others I got from various quarters; it was in all cases difficult to carry them word for word in one's memory, so my habit has been to make the speakers say what was in my opinion demanded of them by the various occasions, of course adhering as closely as possible to the general sense of what they really said."

In his previous book on Entebbe, "Yoni's Last Battle," Iddo Netanyahu discusses the kind of decisions that had to be made. He said he had to sort out which testimonies or parts of testimonies to believe, whose stories sounded most logical, and who had the best memory (even people without phenomenal memories might remember details of a specific event, he noted). He went on to explain how he had to weed out those who were basing themselves on information they had heard or read, as opposed to those who had personal knowledge and those who were prone to exaggeration or had a bone to pick. Finally, Netanyahu, consistent with his unusual research method, had to choose those who were more clearheaded and factual, and decide which of the written documents that also relied on human memory and subjective impressions, adhered most closely to the truth.

Armed with this supposedly foolproof recipe, Netanyahu got down to work. In the book under under review, he swiftly dismissed the report of the IDF history department as "worthless" because the researchers "blindly accepted the erroneous and misleading statements of Muki Betzer." Avigdor Shahan, who plays down Yoni Netanyahu's part in the raid, was also rejected out of hand, on the grounds that he, too, was influenced by Betzer and the IDF report. It doesn't seem to make much difference to Netanyahu that Shahan, an independent, unaffiliated historian, based his conclusions not only on Betzer's reports, but on interviews with 130 people directly involved in the operation.

If Dan Shomron tells Shahan (and Yedioth Ahronoth correspondent Naomi Levitzky) that Yoni opened fire on the guards before the specified time, then Shomron "does not represent the historical truth," as far as Netanyahu is concerned. And who holds the key to that historical truth? I'll give you one guess.

A bigger front

The battle over who should get credit for Operation Entebbe is not limited to the Netanyahu-Betzer front. In his memoirs, "Pinkas sherut," Yitzhak Rabin criticized Shimon Peres for his slow response: "Fifty-three hours after receiving news of the plane hijacking, the defense minister had not even done the minimum - summoning the chief of staff to discuss military options for rescuing the hostages." After the operation, Peres' spokesman told the foreign media that "Rabin opposed military action, and only the stubborn insistence of Peres, who supported the operation from the start, forced Rabin to change his mind."

Peres devoted a whole book to the operation, "Yoman entebbe" ("Entebbe Diary"). He describes Rabin's tenseness during the cabinet meeting, and how he tried to persuade his ministers that "there have been precedents for Israel giving in." The then chief of staff Motta Gur, in writings that were published posthumously, wondered how Peres could support a military operation and then turn around and vote in the government in favor of bowing to the hijackers' demands ("Rosh hamateh haclali," "Chief of the General Staff").

Benny Peled, then commander of the air force, had his say, too: "After the operation ... nearly all of them played hero, claiming they wouldn't have surrendered to extortion under any circumstances. All except for Yitzhak Rabin, who stuck to his guns even when it was over. He said: 'Before I became prime minister, I decided in principle that if we ever had to negotiate with terrorists on foreign territory ... I would give in, because I could never look a mother in the eye if her soldier or hostage son were killed in a failed operation" ("Yamim shel heshbon," "Days of Reckoning").

Peled had harsh words for Motta Gur, too, but Gur took preemptive action: He wrote a sequel to his children's book "Azit hakalba hatzanhanit" ("Azit the Paratrooper Dog"). Gur, the brains and driving spirit behind the operation, sent Azit parachuting into Entebbe with Yoni and his force - a slight, pardonable revision of history, considering the profit to be gained from properly wiring the brains of young children "Azit b'entebbe" ("Azit in Entebbe").

But all this pales in the face of the 30-year wrestling match that has been going on between veterans of Sayeret Matkal. In this free-style match, anything goes - and that includes hinting that Betzer's abrupt halt while in the middle of charging, ostensibly to change the magazine in his submachine gun, really had a different explanation. Recalling other missions in which Betzer was meant to lead his men and suddenly found himself in the rear, is insinuating enough. Why not come right out and call him a coward to his face? Maybe we'll see that in the next round. Netanyahu doesn't stop here: Betzer didn't kill a single terrorist. At most, he shot a terrorist who had already been hit, or was already dead, and if he killed anyone, it was one of the hostages.

With all the effort Netanyahu has invested in this book, there is no guarantee that readers who manage to plow through all 718 pages will conclude that he is right. If anything, they will probably be bored and wonder why all of this was necessary. The truth is, people have also been turned off by Betzer's frequent media appearances. Five years ago, when this battle flared up again, Yedioth columnist Uri Elizur ridiculed him: "Maybe next year he'll think he was the one who was killed in Entebbe and they only identified the body as Yoni by mistake. Watching brave young warriors turn into old men lusting for glory is not a pretty sight. Take it easy, old soldier. There's enough honor for both of you."

After the fiasco of our last war, the satirists have been having a field day with this never-ending feud. "A critical look at our old wars shows that we've screwed up big-time before. We just were luckier back then. Last month we found out that during Operation Entebbe, Muki Betzer deviated from the original plan by bursting into the terminal from the left door because he didn't know which hand he was wearing his watch on, and Yoni started shooting too early because he was aiming at Muki Betzer's back. The big secret, never divulged before, is that we landed three times in the wrong African capital, until we figured out where the hell Entebbe was. Sic transit gloria mundi" (Reshef and Regev Levy, Haaretz Hebrew edition, August 2, 2006).

The Netanyahus, Iddo and Benjamin, have done a great service to the memory and legacy of their brother by sorting through his correspondence and publishing "Self-Portrait of a Hero: From the Letters of Jonathan Netanyahu, 1963-1976." If you want definite proof of that, just wake up anyone (except for Muki Betzer, of course) in the middle of the night and ask who the hero of Operation Entebbe was. The answer will be Yoni Netanyahu. I fear that this book, which will certainly trigger a counterattack by Betzer, will only erode the myth of their big brother.

Uri Dromi is the publications editor of the Israel Democracy Institute.