In 1971, Muki Betser, one of Israel’s legendary commandoes, spent four months in Uganda training local paratroopers. Little did he know then that bits of information he was storing away in the back of his mind about the place would prove vital five years down the road when planning Israel’s daring hostage-rescue operation at Entebbe Airport.
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For example, Betser had taken note that the vehicle of choice for senior military personnel in Uganda was the black Mercedes. Israeli Special Forces were later able to fool the Ugandan soldiers guarding the hostage-filled terminal by driving past them in a black Mercedes.
For example, he had observed that the Ugandan air force never flew in the dark. The Israelis could later be assured that if they snuck into the airport at night, they could escape safely with the hostages without any hostile aircraft tailing them.
For example, Betser had become well enough acquainted with Ugandan soldiers to know they had little motivation to engage in battles not their own. “When there are tribal wars, they fight like lions,” he noted in an interview this week with Haaretz. “But if it’s not their war, they can be pretty indifferent.”
Based on this assessment, Israeli forces took off on their mission feeling pretty confident they would not meet resistance from the Ugandan guards stationed outside the terminal once they landed, even if their cover was blown. That would help guarantee the element of surprise, critical to the success of the operation, until the very last moment.
A commander in the elite Sayeret Matkal reconnaissance unit, Betser was on emergency call duty the day German and Palestinian hijackers took control of an Air France flight bound from Tel Aviv to Paris and diverted it to Entebbe. Thirty years old at the time, he was involved in virtually every stage of planning and executing the operation. When Yoni Netanyahu, the Sayeret Matkal commander in charge of the entire mission, was mortally wounded, Betser took over.
Oddly enough, though, he has yet to show his face at any of the official tributes and celebrations marking the 40th anniversary of Entebbe this week. Shrugging off the obvious questions, he says: “I don’t like those things.” Neither has he confirmed whether he will participate in the official Israeli entourage to Uganda next week, to be led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Yoni’s younger brother.
Betser and the older Netanyahu brother had fought side-by-side in the Golan Heights during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. They participated in some of Israel’s most storied counter-terrorism operations and in others that remain secret to this day. “We were the same age, we met in an officers school and we were very good friends,” recalls Betser. “We were very different though. I was a farm boy from Nahalal [Israel’s first workers’ moshav, located in the Jezreel Valley], and he was a city boy from Jerusalem, half-American. Very introverted, not like Bibi. Yoni was a very courageous guy.”
After Yoni was killed, Betser recounts, he stayed in touch with the family, in particular with the father Benzion Netanyahu, for many years.
But the Netanyahu family no longer has much use for him, at least not since he published an account of the operation that dared challenge their own narrative of the beloved son and brother who masterminded the stunning feat. For starters, Betser’s account suggested that more than one individual deserved credit for its success. It pointed out that Yoni had only come on board in the latter stages of planning, as he was stationed in the Sinai desert during the first critical days. Worse yet, it hinted that one of Israel’s most celebrated war heroes almost botched things up.
Reticent to discuss his fraught relationship with the Netanyahu family, Betser agrees to say just the following: “The family understood that my personal role in Entebbe was not a good story from their perspective, and they tried to erase me. I tried to explain to Yoni’s father that it doesn’t matter what I did because Yoni was the commander, and when you’re a commander and an operation succeeds you get all the credit. By the same token, if it had failed, he would have taken all the blame.”
Yoni’s youngest brother, the physician and author Iddo Netanyahu, has already written two books on the Entebbe raid that try to refute not only Betser’s version of events, but also other official accounts that have backed it up. Asked to comment, Betser says: “He never was in touch with me. He never asked me anything. We never exchanged one word. He can write what he wants. I don’t want to talk about it anymore.”
Betser’s account of the Entebbe raid is included in his two autobiographies. “Secret Soldier,” an English-language memoir published by Simon & Schuster, was released in 1996 to mark the 20th anniversary of the operation. (It was co-authored by the late Robert Rosenberg, an American-born author and journalist who worked as an editor at Haaretz.) A second, more detailed Hebrew-language memoir was published late last year.
A third-generation Israeli, Betser served more than 25 years in the military, during which time he also participated in one of its most devastating fiascos: a hostage-taking incident during a school trip in the northern town of Ma’alot in 1974. Twenty-two Israelis were killed and 60 were injured in the botched rescue attempt. Still haunted by the event two years later, Betser says his biggest nightmare flying into Entebbe was the prospect of a repeat of Ma’alot.
And it was that close to happening, as he recalls. “When we landed, things seemed to be going perfectly. Nobody had spotted us in the air, and nobody had spotted us on the ground. We disembarked from the plane in the Mercedes and began driving at normal speed the two-kilometer stretch to the old terminal where the hostages were. I gave the orders for everyone to load their guns.”
The instructions from the army chief of staff and the head of infantry division, says Betser, were to avoid opening fire in order to maintain the element of surprise.
But as they approached the terminal, they noticed two Ugandan guards conversing casually with one another. One walked away, and the other, seeing the convoy approach, raised his gun and shouted out “Advance.”
“Since I had spent time in Uganda, I knew this was just par for the course,” recounts Betser. “But if you’re not aware of this, it can sound threatening. So the minute he raised his gun, Yoni made a quick decision to eliminate him. He told the driver to cut to the right, even though I told him to leave him alone and not to shoot, that it’s a regular drill. Despite that, they shot him. Fortunately, since there was a silencer on the gun, very little noise was made.”
But then, for no apparent reason, a soldier sitting behind Yoni began firing at the Ugandans, this time without a silencer. “The first thing that crosses my mind is Ma’alot,” recounts Betser.
Coming to Yoni’s defense, Betser says he never believed it was his commander’s intention to have shots fired outside the terminal without a silencer. “Yoni thought any shooting needed to be done quietly,” says Betser. “As far as I was concerned, though, there shouldn’t have been any shooting at all. But he was the commander on the scene, and he made the decisions.”
Disaster was averted despite the panic that ensued, and Betser attributes that to the fact that the hijackers were completely clueless. “Even after the shots were fired, the terrorists had no idea who was shooting. It never occurred to them that the IDF had arrived. In fact, there are even testimonies that the German hijacker, who got up to see what was going on outside, said, ‘Those Ugandans have gone crazy.’”
For Betser, the two big, though largely forsaken, heroes of the Entebbe operation were Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Dan Shomron, the former chief of staff who served at the time as commander of the army infantry and paratroopers.
“Rabin was the No. 1 hero,” he asserts. “As a former army chief of staff, he knew exactly the right questions to ask, and he ultimately made the decision to go ahead with the operation. He also convinced all the ministers. Without him, there wouldn’t have been an operation. Then there was Dan Shomron, who presented the plan to him and was involved in every detail of it. After that, the big heroes were Yoni and all the others who took part.”
After returning to civilian life, Betser spent many years working as a land developer in the Galilee before he found his latest calling: Eleven years ago, he set up a pre-military gap year program for young leaders at Kibbutz Ma’agan Michael, near Zichron Yaakov, where he has been working ever since.
Chatting in his modest office on the premises, Betser recalls an unusual encounter he had with Ben Bradlee, the legendary editor in chief of The Washington Post, about a year after the operation. Betser was part of an Israeli military delegation visiting the U.S. capital, when Bradlee approached him over dinner and out of nowhere said: “You’re to blame.”
“For what?” Betser begged to know.
“We spent five months planning our front page for the bicentennial celebrations, and you guys came along and ruined it for us,” joked Bradlee. (The Entebbe operation coincided with America’s 200th birthday on July 4, 1976.)
That same year also saw the release of Operation Thunderbolt, one of the first and to this day most famous film made about Entebbe. For most of the young people Betser encounters these days, and many others as well, that fictionalized drama has become the bible about the rescue mission. Directed by the late Menachem Golan, the film featured the late Israeli actor Assi Dayan (son of Moshe Dayan) in the role of Betser. The real second-in-command found the casting choice rather amusing, since he and Dayan are relatives and grew up together in Nahalal. Betser was even more amused by some of the liberties taken by Golan in telling the story. “The only thing he got right is the scene of the Mercedes disembarking from the plane,” he says.
On a visit to the movie set, an army buddy of Betser’s thought he should tell Golan there were certain inaccuracies in the film. As Betser recalls with a big laugh, Golan responded with a reassuring pat on the friend’s shoulder and the following promise: “I’m going to create for you guys an Entebbe you could never have even dreamed of.”