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The comparison is so compelling that few columnists and broadcasters have resisted making it: between Cpl. Gilad Shalit, captured by Hamas and languishing in captivity somewhere in the Gaza Strip, and the 100 hostages hijacked by Palestinian and German terrorists to Entebbe and rescued by the IDF exactly 30 years ago.
The contrasts seem so great and so troubling: the daring operation in Uganda and the dismal result of the June 25 attack at Kerem Shalom; the rejoicing of the families at Ben-Gurion Airport and the desperate vigil at Shalit's home in Mitzpe Hilah; Israel's leadership, then and now. The actor and journalist Guy Maroz summed up the feeling on Army Radio on Sunday by saying that Entebbe was "a one-off success; besides that there were only failures."
Of course the IDF has had more than its share of victories in the past three decades, but when GSS (General Security Service) chief Yuval Diskin said this week that Shalit's incarceration "might last for months," he begged the question of whether Israel's never-ending battle against terror is being defined these days more by serial failures and setbacks than the brilliant hutzpa of Entebbe.
How is it that the country that managed to bring back its hostages from darkest Africa, 3,800 kilometers away, seems powerless when a soldier is being held practically on our doorstep?
There isn't an Israeli man who hasn't imagined himself as Lt. Col. Yoni Netanyahu, the almost mythological General Staff Reconnaissance Unit (Sayeret Matkal) commander killed at Entebbe. But perhaps we should come to terms with the fact that Colonel (res.) Elhanan Tennenbaum, who through his shady dealings got himself kidnapped to Beirut by Hizbullah and forced the government into a humiliating exchange with Hassan Nasrallah, is more typical of today's Israel?
Or are we judging ourselves too harshly? Every generation tends to self-flagellate and yearn wistfully for past days of glory. The operation at Entebbe took place less than three years after Israel's most serious intelligence and military debacle, the Yom Kippur War. There will always be ups and downs in what is essentially an ongoing daily battle for Israel's survival, and the bottom line is that we're still winning. And besides, if something had gone terribly wrong in Entebbe, would Israel have been any less clever and brave?
Alik Ron, one of the Sayeret Matkal officers who burst into the terminal building at Entebbe in 1976, says he has no doubt that "the IDF can do the same thing again today, and do it even better. The special units are better trained." But he doesn't see any basis for comparing and contrasting the two situations. "Don't forget that two of the Entebbe hostages, Jacques Maimoni and Dora Bloch, were killed, and still the operation was a great success. If we launch an operation and Gilad Shalit is killed, like Nachshon Wachsman was, that will be a 100 percent failure,' he notes. "That's the difference when there is only one prisoner. In Entebbe the main problem was logistic, simply getting there, but once we were there and we had the element of surprise, we were in a much better situation."
According to Ron, despite the "Hollywood movie effect" of the operation on the collective memory, "there were no heroes at Entebbe. In war, danger, exhaustion and a never-ending battle with the fear makes heroes out of young soldiers who accomplish extraordinary feats, but in Entebbe we were a large and highly-skilled force. Of course, there were complex parts to the operation. Getting there and keeping the element of surprise were crucial. But there was no fear or tiredness there."
There were heroes 30 years ago, says Ron - not on the Hercules transport planes but back at home. "The only heroes were (prime minister) Yitzhak Rabin and (defense minister) Shimon Peres, who took an extremely brave decision; they and no others."
Ron, who went on to become the tough-talking commander of the Police's Northern District, could be excused for feeling forsaken by the politicians when he took most of the blame for the October 2000 riots in northern Israel, but he's not prepared to measure today's leaders, Ehud Olmert and Amir Peretz, against his personal Entebbe heroes.
"I don't know what they know about Gilad and how he's being kept and guarded, but I don't think that carrying out a gung-ho operation is bravery," he says. "You need a lot of bravery and cool-headedness not to be pulled into hurried action and to withstand the pressures. If, God forbid, the operation in Entebbe had failed, we would have treated the decision-makers differently. But that would not have changed the fact of their bravery."