Entebbe Aftermath: How Bibi’s Family Cultivated the Yoni Netanyahu Myth

The Netanyahu family won the Israel branding championship and minimized the role of every other officer in the 1976 operation.

Amir Oren
Amir Oren
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Benjamin Netanyahu and Leah Rabin shake hands at a memorial to Yitzhak Rabin, 1997.
Benjamin Netanyahu and Leah Rabin shake hands at a memorial to Yitzhak Rabin, 1997. Credit: Moshe Milner / GPO
Amir Oren
Amir Oren

On Thursday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is due to make his first visit to the Yitzhak Rabin Center, named after the man Bibi incited against in those bitter months of 1995 and whose job he later won. The other invitees were informed they will have to undergo a thorough security check. It’s a little late; the absence of such a check led to events that made Netanyahu prime minister.

Netanyahu has never visited the Peres Center for Peace in Jaffa either, but there’s no comparison, not only because Peres is alive and well, traveling the world. The Rabin Center was established and funded by a law signed by Netanyahu in 1997.

Moreover, Rabin’s daughter Dalia needs his consent to serve as the center's head and his good graces to fund its operations. In 1999 she ran for the Knesset to put an end to Netanyahu’s rule. What she thinks today she may not say, but the Rabin family never forgave Netanyahu for failing to admit partial responsibility for the events of 1995.

The center’s declared mission suits Netanyahu like a glove fits a foot: to teach people taking part in its programs to “see Rabin as a role model of leadership for his unrelenting belief in social responsibility alongside his beliefs in peace and security.”

Not to mention, as the center’s English-language website puts it, “key issues for young leaders of living in democracy, forming identity, taking responsibility, protecting freedom of expression in a pluralistic society.”

Lt. Col. Yonatan Netanyahu, brother of Prime Minister Netanyahu and the only Israeli soldier killed in the 1976 Entebbe operation. Credit: IDF Spokesperson

The reason for Netanyahu’s invitation is the launch of an exhibition of documents, pictures, films and objects from the 1976 Entebbe operation that freed dozens of hostages, which the center describes as the operation that amazed the world.

Rabin Center officials have said Netanyahu was invited not as prime minister but as a “bereaved brother.” The exhibition highlights the name Operation Yonatan, which was given to the Entebbe raid afterward in honor of Lt. Col. Yoni Netanyahu, the one Israeli soldier killed.

This is a strange and perhaps unique step in the history of the Israel Defense Forces. Sometimes, when commanders are killed, their names are commemorated for subsequent operations, but never retroactively as far as anyone can tell.

The most amazing thing is that the paratroopers already had an Operation Yonatan, in September 1956. Operation Entebbe, conducted when Rabin was prime minister, was called Operation Thunderbolt at the time it was planned, executed and investigated.

The Hebrew name literally meant thunderball, pretty ironic considering that when the plans were debated, then-Chief of Staff Mordechai Gur said he envisioned a real military operation, “not James Bond, not Goldfinger.” “Thunderball” (1965), is the fourth film in the James Bond series, following “Goldfinger.”

No one brought a camera

“It wasn’t Yoni’s operation ....We named it after Yoni afterward,” Gur said later, noting that it was vital “to restore perspective, for better or worse.”

It was too late. The Netanyahu family won the Israel branding championship and minimized the role of every other officer, especially Dan Shomron, the commander of the operation, and Yoni’s friend Muki Betser. An outside observer wouldn’t understand the insistence on exclusivity; there was enough glory for everyone.

The 20th anniversary of Gur’s death will be marked in two weeks. Within four months, bullets ended the lives of both Gur, who committed suicide when he was suffering from terminal cancer, and Rabin.

In any case, no one brought a camera to Entebbe — these were the days before the smartphone, Internet and nonstop news broadcasts. There isn’t one photograph of the operation itself.

The invitation to the Operation Yonatan exhibition shows Rabin at the reception for the rescued hostages. It doesn’t mention Peres, Gur or Shomron.

As usual, one can deduce that Entebbe was Yoni. Israeli defense history will soon be reduced to three museum items — Joseph Trumpeldor’s arm, Moshe Dayan’s eye patch and Yoni’s flak jacket.

In fact, Yoni Netanyahu spent most of that week in Sinai and was called in two days before the operation to command the raiding force, without being involved in the five days of discussions and planning.

Neither is he in the top 10 of men responsible for the operation’s success. Besides Rabin, Peres, Gur and Shomron, the deserving include Southern Command chief Yekutiel Adam, air force head Benny Peled, Mossad director Yitzhak Hofi, Betser and Hercules squadron commander Joshua Shani. The final spot could go to somebody in the air force, general staff or infantry-officer contingent without whom there would have been no Entebbe.

The texts published over the past 39 years reflect the justified indecision between giving in to the hijackers’ demands and embarking on a military operation. The old fight between Rabin and Peres — who said what and when — looks banal decades later.

Nowadays, based on a proper working relationship, the Peres Center has donated to the Rabin Center a copy of the note hailing the idea of the black Mercedes, supposedly the official car of Idi Amin or a senior Ugandan army official. It was borrowed by a Sayeret Matkal commando officer from a used-car lot and returned to the dealer after the operation. Its whereabouts were since lost.

Rabin had his doubts about the operation; his job was to assess the probabilities and not complacently believe that somehow everything would work out. Nearly three years since the Yom Kippur War, he and Gur had no reason to fall into the delusional trap that the IDF would be perfect and the enemy foolish. After a series of disasters rescuing hostages inside Israel, skepticism was required, especially given the Entebbe plan’s ambitions.

The great IAF and Sayeret Matkal

Of all the air force’s amazing operations, Entebbe most resembled Operation Moked against Egypt’s air bases in June 1967 and the bombing of Iraq’s nuclear reactor in 1981 — polished professionalism in flight and proper execution against the targets.

But despite the excellence, Rabin and Gur were right in their doubts. The same force haphazardly downed a Libyan plane, was ill-prepared for the Yom Kippur War and lost 18 people in accidents involving three Yasur helicopters in 1971 and 1974.

The ability to safely fly four Hercules planes to a dark target in the heart of Africa wasn’t a given. And it didn’t even exist before the spring of 1976, when a reserve Sayeret Matkal unit under Betser began training with Shani’s Hercules squadron.

The person who almost brought disaster on the mission was Yoni Netanyahu, who didn’t pay attention to the well-informed orders, the fruit of Betser’s experience in training with Uganda’s army and its leaders. Netanyahu ordered his troops to fire at Ugandan soldiers.

Had the hostage takers in the terminal been more alert, the operation would have ended in a costly failure and a commission of inquiry. Gur would have been crucified and forced to explain why he backed away from his intention to appoint Ehud Barak overall commander of the Sayeret Matkal, an expression of a lack of confidence in Netanyahu following professional and ethical miscues.

Indeed, Netanyahu’s commander, Shlomo Gazit, the head of Military Intelligence, had decided to relieve him of his command after one year — a decision in the spring that didn’t have time to be carried out. In the words of Gur, who approved the decision, Netanyahu “was about to be ousted.”

The IDF released documents last year on Gur’s testimony. But searches in the archives and the High Command’s offices didn’t find anything. When you don’t want to, you don’t find things, and when you want to, you listen to recordings of the chief of staff, even in his office bathroom.

The archive is not to blame, but rather those who deprive it of material, and the Netanyahu family can learn a thing or two from the Sharon family. For decades, Ariel Sharon held on to military and other state documents. He and his heirs refused to obey the law and hand them to the IDF archive.

But a compromise has been reached in recent days between the two powerful sides. Representatives from the state archive — not the IDF archive — will come to the Sharons’ Shikmim Farm and evaluate what belongs in the state archive in accordance with the law.

“The materials will be opened to public examination in accordance with the law,” the compromise reads. When? When the messiah comes, which should be soon. The evidence? Netanyahu was invited to the Rabin Center.

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