Fatal errors, near-disaster, a lot of luck and a national hero who doesn’t quite deserve the title: To British military historian Saul David, those were the actual components of the Israeli operation to rescue the hostages from an Air France flight that was hijacked to Uganda in 1976. Jose Padilha’s “7 Days in Entebbe,” which was based on David’s 2015 book “Operation Thunderbolt: Flight 139 and the Raid on Entebbe Airport,” opens in Israeli movie theaters Thursday. In an interview with Haaretz, he seeks to set the record straight.
“My research clearly shows that Yoni Netanyahu was not a central figure in the planning of the operation,” says David at the outset. “He joined at a later stage, after most of the key decisions were made,” he says.
“Netanyahu’s key mistake — firing at a Ugandan soldier — nearly led to disaster.” David says Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s brother, who was killed in the operation, opened fire against the orders of Moshe “Muki” Betzer, the commander of the raiding force. “We don’t know and we’ll never know what led him to make that decision,” says David.
The dramatic moment in which Netanyahu opened fire has been discussed and depicted in previous articles, books and movies. Betzer himself wrote about it in Haaretz, on the 40th anniversary of the daring operation in which nearly all the hostages were rescued. “Operation Entebbe was based on the element of surprise, which is a condition for any operation to foil a ‘bargaining terror attack,” Betzer wrote.
Disguised as a convoy of Ugandan officials, the Israeli commando force that landed at Entebbe advanced toward the terminal where the hostages were being held. Netanyahu shot, but did not kill, a Ugandan soldier, eliminating the element of surprise. The fear was that the operation might recapitulate the Ma’alot tragedy, two years before, when hostages died were in a botched rescue mission. David notes that many of the captives could have been killed, as often happens when terrorists learn an operation is under way.
How would you describe Yoni Netanyahu’s role in the operation?
“I wouldn’t say that he was not a hero here. He was a brave fighter who conducted many operations before this. But he was also the key factor in nearly causing Operation Entebbe to fail completely.”
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But the Palestinian and German terrorists did not begin executing hostages once the operation was exposed. Asked to account for this, David cites “reverse Stockholm Syndrome.” He says the terrorists had developed some empathy for the hostages. “They talked with them and got to know them, and it became harder to kill them,” he says, referring to the German hijackers. “It wouldn’t have looked good for Germans to kill Jews again, after the Holocaust,” he adds.
No more negotiating
David, 52, holds a doctorate in history from Glasgow University and is a professor of military history at Buckingham University. He has written or edited 12 history books and several novels, some of them best-sellers. His expertise is in explaining the decision-making processes surrounding complex military operations. His analysis of Operation Entebbe found that luck played a major role.
“Ultimately, the operation succeeded thanks to luck more than anything else. All the odds were against it,” says David, who has studied many special forces’ operations throughout history. In this case, he points out, with the logistics, the distance and the timing, there were so many things that could have gone wrong and led to great loss of life. “It could have brought down the government and been a humiliation for the army, not long after the Yom Kippur War. At the same time, certain people deserve a lot of credit, like Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who made the very courageous decision to launch the operation.”
In the course of your research, you met with many people and heard conflicting versions of events. Who impressed you the most?
“I’ve interviewed a lot of people in my career. You can’t always tell if someone’s telling the truth, but over time you develop an instinct for it. With Muki Betzer, I had no doubt whatsoever that what he was told me was true. He was the most experienced man in the unit and had taken part in more operations than anyone else. He told me how the operation was planned, how it was executed and said that speed and surprise are everything. When Netanyahu opened fire, [Betzer] was stunned, and feared the terrorists would blow up the building with all the people inside, or kill them all.”
David is also aware of the long-simmering tension between Betzer and the Netanyahu family, saying that while the family may have tried to tarnish Betzer’s reputation, “all you have to do is look at his accomplishments to know the truth.”
The operation also paved Benjamin Netanyahu’s way to the premiership. In his new biography of Netanyahu, Ben Caspit describes it as follows: “He went to his brother’s funeral as Ben Nitai, and returned from it as Benjamin Netanyahu. ... Bibi was now the man on whose shoulders lay all the history of the Jews as understood by his family.”
David concurs with this assessment. “I have no doubt — and Benjamin Netanyahu himself has said this — that Yoni’s death was a key factor in his decision to enter politics. Let’s not be naïve. This famous operation was very useful for him. His brother had become a martyr.”
David also cites the impact of the operation beyond Benjamin Netanyahu’s career: After Entebbe, Britain and the United States decided they would no longer negotiate with terrorists. “It was a signal to kidnappers: You can’t blackmail us.” But he says Israel would still prefer, in the absence of a military option, to conduct negotiations rather than see civilians killed. “I can understand it emotionally, but in practical terms it’s a mistake.”
Entebbe was also the first in a series of airplane hijackings. One of the biggest was the 1977 hijacking of Lufthansa 181, which was forced to land in Mogadishu. Today, after 9/11, hijacking seems to have fallen out of favor. David says the tactic hasn’t completely disappeared, but has become less common because it has more difficult. Also, he says, today’s terrorists are more interested in causing death and destruction than in taking hostages. “If they could crash another plane into a building, they’d do it tomorrow morning. It’s just a lot harder today.”
What did you think of ‘7 Days in Entebbe’?
“It’s a very brave film because it tries to tell the story from several points of view, and doesn’t focus just on Israel’s military heroism. Rightly so. The story was much more complex, and it was also important to get to know the terrorists, to try to understand why they chose not to kill all the hostages. I’m aware that this point has caused a lot of criticism, including in Israel. I understand that in Israel it’s hard to accept any parallel between the rescuers and the terrorists. But we need to understand where these people were coming from and, at the same time, to show the mistakes made by the rescuers.”