Netanyahu’s Entebbe Test

The problem with Netanyahu's conduct is his tendency to ignore the dividing line between the private and the public spheres. His pain over his brother is understandable, but he must behave like a prime minister.

An Israeli police officer clears the way for the hostages returned to Israel after their ordeal in Entebbe, Uganda in 1976.
Moshe Milner, GPO

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is setting out this morning for a visit to four African countries: Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda and Ethiopia. Israel has bilateral relations with every one of them, which merit attention and nurturing.

In general there is a need to address attention to the developing African continent. The good relations between Israel and the awakening continent in the 1960s deteriorated during the period between the Six-Day War and the Yom Kippur War. In recent decades severed ties have been gradually rehabilitated, but they have not returned to what they were at their prime, mainly due to the central influence of South Africa, which doesn’t forgive Israel for supporting the apartheid regime.

The visit of a high-ranking Israeli to Africa is therefore a desirable and necessary event. It’s good that despite the security situation – and in Israel a fragile security situation is almost a permanent phenomenon – the trip will take place as planned.

But despite the expected success of the diplomatic and economic contacts, it’s hard to shake off the impression that the entire trip would not be taking place were it not for Netanyahu’s desire to take advantage of his official position in order to conduct a ceremony in the old Entebbe airport. The excuse: to mark the 40th anniversary of the Israel Defense Forces’ Operation Thunderbolt, in which his brother Yoni fell.

In IDF history there have been many other daring operations, and unfortunately, thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of other soldiers have died. The real reason for Netanyahu’s insistence on conducting a military ceremony, with the participation of dozens of IDF soldiers, in the context of an expensive trip whose cost is estimated at 28 million shekels (over $7 million) paid for by public funds, is his emotional involvement.

The late Lt. Col. Yonatan Netanyahu, the commander of the Sayeret Matkal elite commando unit, was the only IDF casualty in the operation, along with four hostages. His functioning during the operation, as in the Sayeret in general, is controversial, but that does not detract from his dedication to the IDF during his 12 years of service, his outstanding conduct in the Yom Kippur War and other operations, his interesting personality and the terrible loss suffered by his family and friends.

The problem with Netanyahu’s conduct, in this matter as in others, is his tendency to ignore the dividing line between the private and the public spheres. His pain over his brother is understandable, but he must behave like a prime minister. When he extols Yoni Netanyahu above and beyond all the other fallen IDF soldiers, who were sent by the governments he headed and previous ones on missions from which they did not return, he is insulting the memory of the fallen and the feelings of those who cherished them.

Netanyahu’s test today in Entebbe is whether he will be able to rise to the occasion, to grant the proper respect to the commanders and planners of the operation, rather than focus only on his brother, and to refrain from making political capital from his family connection to the operation.