Netanyahu Traces Path to Power Back to Entebbe, and Lost Brother


Israel has lost many soldiers in battle. Few have had as many streets, schools and parks named after them. Yoni and Bibi. Bibi and Yoni. For years, these paired nicknames have been hard to escape.

Mr. Netanyahu, 66, is calculating and gruff; he picks his words slowly and carefully, his deep voice coming across almost like a grumble. But when he spoke about his older brother, he seemed to drop his guard, at least a little.

“He had the soul of a poet,” the prime minister began. “He was a great writer, a great thinker, but he was also a man of action; he was a commander in battle unsurpassed, unmatched; he had the capacities of thought and action, rumination and purpose …” His voice trailed off. “He had a great soul.”

Looking back on Yoni Netanyahu is like looking back on any hero. It is hard to get a sense of what is real and what is myth.

He was the family star: a brilliant soccer player, a student council president, on the dean’s list at Harvard. By 1976, he was the commander of the Israel Defense Forces’ Sayeret Matkal, an elite, highly secretive unit of commandos specializing in what military analysts call “close work.”

On June 27 of that year, Palestinian and German terrorists hijacked an Air France flight from Tel Aviv to Paris with more than 200 passengers. It was an era of hijackings: Benjamin Netanyahu, also in Sayeret Matkal, had been wounded during the freeing of a hijacked plane in Israel in 1972.

But the terrorists had learned from that one. This time they had the jet flown farther away than they thought the Israelis could ever reach, to the main airport in Entebbe, Uganda, which was in the grip of one of the most destructive and cartoonish characters to ever rule in Africa, Idi Amin.

Amin, who called himself the uncrowned king of Scotland and the “Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Seas,” had recently thrown in his lot with the Arab world, and he dispatched his soldiers to surround the hostages at the Entebbe airport.

The Israelis, at first, were inclined to meet the terrorists’ demands and free dozens of prisoners. It seemed impossible to stage a rescue.

Uganda was more than 2,000 miles away. Few of Israel’s planes had that range, and if anything went wrong, there was no backup. This was before cellphones and satellite images became ubiquitous: The Israelis did not even know how many Ugandan soldiers were guarding the airport or exactly where the hostages were being housed.

“The distance was long, time was short, and the situation was blind,” recalled Shimon Peres, 92, who was Israel’s defense minister at the time and went on to be prime minister and president.

It was when the terrorists began separating the Jews from the non-Jews, readying them for execution, that things changed. Mr. Peres, who lost members of his family in the Holocaust, remembered saying: “What? Again? Now that we have an independent Israel? No way.”

Photo

Mr. Netanyahu with advisers in Jerusalem on Friday. He said he frequently had “hypothetical” conversations with his brother Yonatan, who was killed on July 4, 1976.

Credit
Uriel Sinai for The New York Times

Within a few days, a long-shot plan began to take shape, and a key figure in forming it, former soldiers and officials said in recent interviews, was Yoni Netanyahu.

The idea was to land a cargo plane at night with a car inside, and have the commandos simply drive up to the airport as if they were Amin and his entourage returning from an overseas trip.

The plan almost worked. The Israelis landed without incident.

But as they were cruising up to the terminal in a black Mercedes-Benz doctored to look like Amin’s car, a Ugandan sentry stepped out from the darkness. Yoni shot at him, sparking gunfire that blew the Israelis’ cover.

When the hostages inside the airport heard all the shooting, “we were sure that was it,” recalled Sara Guter Davidson, who had been traveling to Paris with her family. “I just waited for my bullet, trying to cover my son.”

But in the smoke, fire and noise, miraculously, the hostages heard Hebrew.

“We couldn’t believe it,” Ms. Davidson said. “We could never even dream our army could get there.”

The Israelis rushed in, shot all the terrorists, and spirited out more than 100 people who were being held at the airport. Three hostages were killed in the crossfire, and one person lay slumped outside: Yoni, who had been shot in the chest.

There is still debate over who fired the bullet. A German? A Palestinian? A Ugandan soldier?

Back then, Israeli commandos did not wear body armor; it was too bulky, slowed them down. As Mr. Netanyahu’s other brother, Iddo, a doctor and a writer, said, in operations like these the difference between success and failure “hinges on a few seconds.”

Yoni Netanyahu, 30, died from internal bleeding shortly before the Israeli planes took off, capping one of the most dramatic rescues ever attempted and changing the world, in a way.

Israel, which had been wallowing in the shadow of the Yom Kippur War in 1973, got a huge morale boost; Jews around the world were proud.

Hijackings waned.

Amin’s downfall was hastened.

“Amin’s soldiers were furious,” said Ibrahim Mukiibi, who worked for Uganda’s foreign service at the time. “They were harassing everybody, out of anger, because they had been humiliated.”

After that, Amin began acting “more ferociously,” Mr. Mukiibi said. Soon most of the population had turned against him.

Yoni Netanyahu, the only Israeli soldier killed at Entebbe, became an icon in Israel and across the Jewish diaspora. Two movies about the raid came out in the next year, and a book of Yoni’s letters was eventually published, showing his intense patriotism and sensitivity. He had killed many people in battle and did not necessarily feel good about it, writing: “It adds a whole dimension of sadness to a man’s being.”

Benjamin Netanyahu said in the interview that Yoni’s death marked the birth of his political life. He organized conferences on terrorism, arguing that it was a new form of proxy warfare, in this case a way for Arab countries that had suffered military defeats to strike back at Israel.

Israel’s incoming ambassador to Washington was impressed. He asked Mr. Netanyahu if he wanted to serve as the embassy’s No. 2. That is how he began climbing what he called the “staircase” of Israeli politics.

Forty years later, the debate still rages: Should Yoni have fired at the sentry? Has his heroism been exaggerated?

“The Netanyahu family won the Israel branding championship and minimized the role of every other officer,” read a column published last year in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

The prime minister seems to have steeled himself to such critiques, which resurface every year around the July 4 anniversary of Entebbe.

“The facts speak for themselves,” he said curtly.

When asked what he would have done had he been the prime minister at the time, facing spotty intelligence, the lives of 100 innocents on the line and long odds, Mr. Netanyahu looked around the room and paused for a few moments.

A military helicopter’s rotor blades beat outside. Bright Jerusalem sunshine flooded through the windows.

“Wow, I can’t tell you what I would have done,” he said. But, he continued, “I can tell you, without getting into details, what I have done, and the fact is, we’ve taken great risks, but you don’t necessarily know about them.”

As he said, whenever he has doubts about which way to go, he has a sounding board who is always available: Yoni.

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