Forty years after a group of Israeli commandos carried out one of the most daring rescue operations in history – the raid on Entebbe – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, some veterans of that operation and some of the hostages who were freed will return to the Uganda airport on Monday to commemorate that event.
There will surely be speeches about the historical importance of this raid: how it restored Israeli deterrence eroded by the Yom Kippur War; how it enhanced Israel's stature on the world stage; how it triggered a change in how other countries dealt with hijackings and changed the course of anti-terrorism efforts; and how – in the words of Shimon Peres, the defense minister of the time – “it proved that Israel is capable not only of maintaining defensible frontiers, but also of taking decisive action in defense of her interests.”
But it also had an impact on Israeli history in another way: it cast into the limelight Benjamin Netanyahu, one of the two younger brothers of the head of the mission killed during the operation: Yonatan “Yoni” Netanyahu.
The prime minister was 26 at the time of his brother’s death, and was employed at the Boston Consulting Group, having recently graduated from MIT with degrees in architecture and business management.
He was then unknown to the Israeli public. Yes, he too was a veteran of the elite Sayeret Matkal unit that carried out the operation, but he was not involved in it. After the raid he returned to Israel to establish an anti-terrorism institute in his brother's name, the Jonathan Institute, that catapulted him into the media limelight, and then into politics.
The Institute held two high profile conferences, one in 1979 attended by Senator Henry Jackson and George H.W. Bush, who the next year was tabbed by Ronald Reagan as his vice presidential candidate, and another in 1984 – when he was the deputy chief of mission at the embassy in Washington -- attended by then Secretary of State George Shultz, and US ambassador to the UN Jeane Kirkpatrick. Between and 1981 to 1995 Netanyahu authored three books on how to combat terrorism, and Shultz later said Netanyahu’s work had an impact on US policy toward combating terrorism.
“I thought I would be either in the academic world or the business world,” he said in an e-mail exchange with Newsweek
's Dan Ephron in 2012, on the occasion of a film that came out at the time on his brother, “Follow Me: The Yoni Netanyahu Story."
“My brother’s death changed my life and directed it to its present course.” He said that the events of July 4, 1976 did not shape his worldview, but rather “reaffirmed it.”
In the film the prime minister remembers how he was the one who had to break the news of his brother's death to his parent's, driving six hours from Boston to Philadelphia to do so. When his father saw him, he asked,”Bibi, what are you doing here?”
“And then his expression changed,” Netanyahu remembered in the film, “and he understood immediately. And my mother let out a terrible scream. I’ll never forget that. It was actually worse than hearing about Yoni’s death.”
Indeed, it is having suffered this kind of loss, being a member of the country's “family of the bereaved,” that Netanyahu mentions often when talking about terror, or trying to comfort families who have lost relatives in battle or in terrorist attacks. For instance, in a 2012 condolence call to Eva Sandler, who lost her husband and two children in a terrorist attack in Toulouse, Netanyahu said bereavement was like a disability.
"It is painful and debilitating. It is as if a limb of your body has been cut off,” he said. The loss is with him all the time, he told The Jerusalem Post
's Elli Wohlgelernter in a 2001 interview marking 25 years to Entebbe.
"There's practically not a day that goes by that I don't think of him, and think of what he would do, and this is a great source of spiritual uplifting, but also a great source of sorrow on occasion, when you think of what the country has missed in his death," he said.
Netanyahu said candidly that the public work he became engaged in after his brother’s death set his life on its current trajectory.
"From this activity, I ended up in diplomacy, and from diplomacy I got into politics. So you might say that Yoni's death triggered the process by which I ultimately ended up in politics, although I didn't have that intention consciously at the time."
Over the years some of Netanyahu's detractors have accused him of using his brother's story for his own political benefit. In that 2001 interview Netanyahu deflect that criticism, saying that while his brother is a “great example,” he does not mention him as much as he should, and very rarely interviews on the subject.
“I think that his death at Entebbe marked a unique turning point in the world's battle against terrorism," Netanyahu said, "because after Entebbe, it was very difficult to argue that you had no choice but to surrender to terrorism. His death triggered a great cataclysm in all our lives, the lives of the family, but in the sense of a re-dedication, in my case it was primarily to advance the battle against terrorism.”
Forty years later, that battle still rages.