From Entebbe to Tehran

What the raid on Entebbe says about a future operation in Iran.

Ahmadinejad 311 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Ahmadinejad 311
(photo credit: REUTERS)
As the then head of military intelligence, I was part of the planning of the operation to rescue the more than 100 hijacked Israeli and other hostages at Entebbe Airport, Uganda, just over 35 years ago.
That operation took place under very different circumstances than those surrounding the current public debate concerning a possible attack on the Iranian nuclear facilities. Yet, despite these differences, the Entebbe operation may provide some insight into the situation Israel now faces.
At the end of June 1976, the Israeli government, led by Yitzhak Rabin, faced a critical dilemma. All of the government ministers were united in their desire to free the hostages and see them return home safely. However, they agonized over whether they should give in to the demands of the hijackers (seven Palestinians and Germans, aided by pro-Palestinian Ugandan troops) to free more than 50 prisoners being held in Israeli, Kenyan, French, Swiss and West German jails, or attempt a complex and extremely risky military rescue operation.
Regarding Iran, the Israeli government, this time led by Binyamin Netanyahu, faces another extremely difficult choice.
It must choose between coming to terms with Iran as a nuclear power or embarking on a military operation aimed at foiling Iran’s offensive nuclear ambitions, which could have grave security and diplomatic consequences.
In both cases, it is the elected government that bears the absolute authority and responsibility to decide on such matters. The military establishment is responsible for faithfully carrying out the decisions of the civilian government.
It all seems so simple. But it is only superficially so.
Only one week elapsed between the hijacking of Air France Flight 139, which originated in Tel Aviv with a stopover in Athens, and the rescue operation in Entebbe. Leading up to the operation, the pressure on the Israeli government was massive. The families of the more than 100 hijacked Israelis as well as some other nationals (most of the foreign nationals and non-Jews had been let go by the hijackers) maintained intense pressure on the government and demanded that Israel release the prisoners, as stipulated by the hijackers.
But the public was unaware that there was a possibility of a military rescue, so they could not insist that the government authorize such an operation.
In contrast, the specter of a nuclear-armed Iran has been looming for more than a decade. Everyone is aware of and fully understands the potential threat from Iran, which could be turned into reality either as a response to a strike against its nuclear facilities or when Iran reaches its objective and is both capable of producing nuclear weapons and has the means to deliver them.
Let us return to the five days that preceded the Entebbe rescue.
While it was absolutely clear that only the government could decide to instruct the army to carry out a rescue operation, such an order would not be given unless the IDF chief of staff and the general staff were able to devise an effective and viable plan.
Indeed, from the first moment, even before the government had given the authorization, the military began drawing up possible plans. Several teams, including one headed by the commander of the air force, planned and presented various options, which were rejected as impractical.
Despite the ongoing planning and intelligence gathering, and even after a special exercise simulating landing aircraft on an unlit landing strip, no concrete plan was finalized until Shabbat morning, July 3.
Even then, when the chief of staff presented the operational plan to the prime minister, we were cross-examined for an hour to clarify all the possible risks that might endanger the operation.
The prime minister authorized the plan only after he was convinced that it was doable.
He was fully aware that the responsibility for the operation, for good or for ill, rested solely on his shoulders.
From here we move on to the analogy of the possible attack on Iranian nuclear facilities.
Taking into account the reciprocal relationship between the civilian government and the military, the government cannot order an attack unless: Based on available intelligence the IDF is able to convince the government that an attack on the Iranian facilities is feasible and that such an attack would paralyze the project, creating a serious setback, lasting at least several years, to Iran’s military nuclear capability.
The intelligence branch is able to delineate possible and likely Iranian military responses, including both direct responses and indirect responses via its proxies in Lebanon and Gaza.
The IDF specifies Israel’s ability to withstand these responses, including an assessment of the civilian population’s ability to endure.
There are, and will be, many other considerations, especially in the diplomatic arena, which the government would have to take into account before any decision can be made.
Such considerations are not the purview of the military. Thus, the ultimate decision is always the purview of the civilian authority. At the same time it is inconceivable that any decision concerning an attack on Iran would not be fully backed by the professional operational elements of the security establishment.
The writer is a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University and former head of IDF Military Intelligence.