ENTEBBE, Uganda – Veterans of the operation had their suspicions dispelled: The prime minister did remember to mention (most) of the participants who weren’t his brother. The president of Uganda, for his part, elicited giggles when he speechified about the Matriarch Sarah to the audience that included Sara Netanyahu.
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Anat Shomron Bukai, the only daughter of Dan Shomron, was 6 years old when her father commanded Operation Thunderbolt. Jaffar Idi Amin, one of the 55 offspring of the ruler of Uganda at the time of the operation, was 10. On Monday, the two sat in adjacent rows at the memorial ceremony on the tarmac of the old airport at Entebbe, became acquainted, smiled and embraced. Jaffar related that he devotes his time to reconciliation between nations and people. Anat listened, tensely, to the remarks of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has spent the past four decades trying to minimize Shomron’s part in the operation.
Anat hesitated about accepting the invitation from the Israel Defense Forces to participate in the military delegation to the ceremony – a delegation almost as large as the one to Uganda in the heyday of relations between the two countries, but this time it was a delegation of extras who were there to swell the scene and have their pictures taken, while the only speaker was Netanyahu.
Muki Betser, the commander of the Sayeret Matkal special operations unit attack force, and the person who took command of the entire force after Yonatan Netanyahu was wounded in the back by a bullet fired from the control tower, also hesitated, agreed to come and then cancelled his participation at the last moment. Both of them suspected that Netanyahu would make no mention of anyone who wasn’t his brother.
The suspicion was dispelled to some extent. Netanyahu named most of the senior participants in the decision on the rescue operation and its implementation at the government and military levels – Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Defense Minister Shimon Peres, Chief of Staff Motta Gur, Israel Air Force commander Benny Peled, Shomron and the commanders of the Paratroop and Golani brigades, Matan Vilnai and Uri Saguy, respectively. Two majors general were left out: Operation Branch chief Yekutiel Adam and Mossad chief Yitzhak Hofi. And, of course, Betser. All in all, on the Netanyahu scale, considerable progress.
Not that Netanyahu, who unlike the IDF clings to the title “Operation Yonatan,” managed to restrain himself and refrain from mentioning his personal angle. For some reason, he thought that the audience at the old airport and at home was interested in his stories about himself. At the explicit level, this was a context for breast-beating – because of him Yoni joined Sayyeret Matkal.
At a more implicit, political level, it was an echo of the weird confrontations in the cabinet between him and Education Minister Naftali Bennett. Both of them were team commanders in select units, one in Sayyeret Matkal and the other in Maglan. Ministers who hear them talk in cabinet discussions are often astounded at the extent to which the two of them can go back to their early 20s in a junior officers’ competition on knowledge and heroism.
Jaffar Idi Amin’s situation in the operetta with the colorful costumes and the colonial backdrop, which justified neither dragging the crowd and the baggage thousands of kilometers nor the millions of shekels that were spent, was especially delicate. President Yoweri Museveni was a participant in the struggle to topple his father from power. Jaffar was invited to the event as a guest of Israel, not of the government of Uganda; in his speech Netanyahu described Idi Amin as a “cruel tyrant.” Jaffar’s perpetual smile froze.
Netanyahu did not have the basic courtesy to express sorrow for the deaths of Ugandan soldiers in the operation. On that night, they were enemies but they were citizens of the host country and 40 years later, common sense and courtesy required attention to the circumstances that caused them and the IDF soldiers to be on opposite sides. What Netanyahu chose to leave out, Museveni supplied, along with a dig at Idi Amin’s army: Had it not been for the ignorance of the soldiers and their commanders, he said, the IDF would not have succeeded in the operation.
Museveni, as everyone in East Africa knows, means “formerly of the Seventh Brigade” of the British Army in World War II – not the president but rather his father. He is married to the Culture and Sport Minister Miri Regev of Uganda – the minister of education and sport. As moderator of the daily Bible verses, he endowed the event with a ridiculous tinge. The audience found it hard to believe its ears. In the Ugandan rows, some fixed their eyes on the ground in an attempt to keep a straight face. This, apparently, is what clinging too hard to power does to a person. He recouped his honor somewhat when it became clear that in speaking of “Palestine” he was referring to dividing the land into two states.
Netanyahu, too, injected a religious and arrogant dimension into his remarks – Jews free captives, it is a divine commandment (and what about practitioners of other religions?) – but he did not manage to elicit the giggles Mesvani achieved in his remarks about Sarah the mother of Isaac and Hagar the mother of Ishmael, with Sara Netanyahu sitting there in his audience.