In its 68-year history, Israel has witnessed four events which left an unprecedented impression domestically and even more so internationally.
These events in chronological order were:
• The screening in 1960 of Exodus, the epic film based on Leon Uris’s book;
• The capture of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann in 1960;
• The smashing victory in the Six Day War in June 1967 against three Arab armies; and
• The Entebbe raid in 1976, which will mark its 40th anniversary on July 4.
All of them were formative experiences which captured the world’s imagination, and portrayed Israel as a daring and pioneering nation whose leaders were ready to take high risks to defend the country and its people in far-away lands in pursuit of national goals.
The bold, courageous, yet adventurous decision to send IDF troops to rescue 105 hostages from a hijacked plane held in Uganda also cemented the image of Israel as a determined role model in fighting terrorists wherever they are.
What also contributed to the admiration of Israel and elevated its image was the timing: The operation took place on the Fourth of July, the 200th US Independence Day.
It was not an easy decision. At first the government, led by prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, was reluctant even to think about the military option, and was ready to genuinely engage in negotiations with the German and Palestinian terrorists – even knowing that it would lead to giving in to the terrorists’ demands to release 40 Palestinians from an Israeli prison.
Then the military and intelligence chiefs slowly convinced Rabin and his defense minister, Shimon Peres, that against all odds, a rescue operation was viable. Rabin agreed to consider it.
Several contingency plans were presented. One talked about parachuting naval commandos into Lake Victoria, where members of the prestigious Flotilla 13 would have ridden rubber boats to the airport located on the edge of the lake. According to the plan, after killing the hijackers and freeing the hostages, the commandos would ask Idi Amin – the crazy and unpredictable ruler of Uganda – for passage home. The plan was abandoned because of lack of time for preparations and exercises, but also out of fear that Lake Victoria was infested with crocodiles.
Another idea was to send special forces by land via Kenya to free the hostages.
Eventually the most trivial and unexpected plan – which seemed as if it had been suggested by a writer of thrillers with a fertile imagination, or taken from an unrealistic movie – was the one that was executed. It proved the saying that the simplest and shortest way is the best one to reach the target. The astonishing operation also proved that success has many fathers. Israeli leaders battled for the credit. Peres went on a public relations campaign to present himself as the initiator and pusher of the plan, in an attempt to dwarf Rabin’s share of the credit.
Some Israeli cabinet ministers humiliated themselves by appearing in a film about the raid, which was so hastily produced by director Menachem Golan that it seemed that preparations had begun before the rescue mission was completed.
But the most controversial battle was over the military credit. Lt-Col. Yonatan Netanyahu, commander of Sayeret Matkal, the General Staff Reconnaissance Unit, led the unit to gain the release of the hostages held at the terminal.
He was killed before reaching his target and replaced by his deputy, Lt.-Gen. Muki Betser.
Since then, the real details of who did what and what really happened became irrelevant, and highly disputed and controversial. Entebbe turned into a myth with various sides trying to rewrite history and even to falsify it.
One thing remains clear: the operation, named officially after Yonatan, became a launching pad for his brother, Benjamin Netanyahu, to first establish himself as a terrorism expert and later to cement his political career.
Indeed, it was one of Israel’s finest hours, but what really is the Entebbe legacy? Is it applicable today, 40 years later, and can it be repeated? To sum up: It is the determination and courage to be honest to one’s own policy, and be ready to execute it regardless of any hurdles in the way.
Surely in the second decade of the 21st century, when the world is infested with all sorts and forms of terrorists – towering above them being ISIS, which is taking advantage of failing democracies and weak leaders – the lessons of Entebbe are needed even more. The problem, however, is that we are also witness to a lack of determined leadership ready to make bold decisions which may turn sour. As we have learned from Israel’s four recent wars – one in Lebanon and three in Gaza – our leaders are very reluctant to order high-risk operations.
The Israeli public is much more spoiled than it was in the 1970s. It doesn’t have the stamina to sustain casualties and make sacrifices on the altar of a noble cause. It looks for quick and immediate satisfaction, and for instant solutions which result in easy victories, like the reality shows they watch on television.
The leaders, for their part, are prisoners of politics and the culture of ratings. It is highly doubtful that if Israel were to find itself in a similar situation to the one it faced in 1976, the leadership would dare take a similar path.
Entebbe was most probably Israel’s last heroic hurrah.