‘I was told there was no way to make a res­cue pos­si­ble’

In an ex­cerpt from ‘No Room for Small Dreams’ by Shi­mon Peres, the late pres­i­dent re­calls – while serv­ing as de­fense min­is­ter – plot­ting the dar­ing raid on En­tebbe

The Jerusalem Post - The Jerusalem Post Magazine - - BOOKS - Reprinted with per­mis­sion from Harper Collins.

On Sun­day, June 27, 1976, I en­tered the prime min­is­ter’s of­fice to join in the govern­ment’s weekly cab­i­net meet­ing. Yitzhak Rabin was pre­sid­ing. Two years ear­lier, Rabin and I had faced off against one another to lead the govern­ment, and in the af­ter­math of his vic­tory, he had asked me to serve as Is­rael’s de­fense min­is­ter. The day’s meet­ing was much like any other: a dis­cus­sion of tight bud­gets and tough chal­lenges re­lated to im­por­tant work that lay ahead. None of us around the ta­ble could have known what was about to tran­spire as the door of the of­fice swung open and one of my mil­i­tary aides stepped into the room. He hastily ap­proached and handed me a folded-up note, scrib­bled in a dizzy­ing hand­writ­ing that sug­gested the same ur­gency as his foot­steps.

“Air France Flight 139 from Ben-Gu­rion Air­port to Paris-Orly has been hi­jacked after a stopover in Athens,” the note read. “The plane is now in the air, its des­ti­na­tion un­known.”

I passed the note to Rabin. As soon as the meet­ing was ad­journed, he asked a smaller group of cab­i­net min­is­ters to form a task force and join him in the down­stairs con­fer­ence room to dis­cuss op­tions. We shared what lit­tle we knew – which, we ac­knowl­edged, was next to noth­ing. It was de­cided that we would is­sue an of­fi­cial state­ment pro­vid­ing the ini­tial facts as we un­der­stood them, and con­firm­ing that the govern­ment had no in­ten­tion to ne­go­ti­ate with ter­ror­ists. Rabin ad­journed the meet­ing, and we each be­gan our work – to un­der­stand what had hap­pened, and to plan for a re­sponse.

Over the com­ing hours, de­tails trick­led in. We learned that the ter­ror­ists who had boarded the plane in Athens were members of the in­fa­mously vi­o­lent Pop­u­lar Front for the Lib­er­a­tion of Pales­tine and that they had com­man­deered a plane with nearly 250 pas­sen­gers, in­clud­ing more than one hun­dred Is­raelis, and 12 crew members from France. That after­noon we re­ceived a re­port that the plane had re­fu­eled in Libya. Mordechai “Motta” Gur, the IDF chief of the gen­eral staff, pulled me aside to say that he thought it pos­si­ble the plane was headed for Is­rael. I phoned Rabin to de­scribe the new intelligen­ce. We agreed that if the hi­jack­ers did in­deed want to come to Is­rael, we should let them. We had some ex­pe­ri­ence launch­ing hostage res­cues, and do­ing so at our own air­port on our own soil was cer­tainly prefer­able if nec­es­sary. That had been the case four years ear­lier, when ter­ror­ists had hi­jacked a Sabena flight from Vi­enna to Tel Aviv. We were able to res­cue the pas­sen­gers then. But that was on our home ter­ri­tory. This was very dif­fer­ent. For now, we had lit­tle choice but to wait.

In the late hours of the night, I joined Yeku­tiel “Kuti” Adam, chief of op­er­a­tions of the IDF, on a drive to the air­port where the IDF’s elite com­mando unit, Say­eret Matkal, was re­hears­ing for a pos­si­ble hostage res­cue. I had in­cred­i­ble faith in the brav­ery and the skill of the Say­eret Matkal. They were deeply cre­ative, strong not just in body, but in mind. They were the best fight­ing force in Is­rael. I con­sid­ered them the great­est in all the world. The unit’s re­cently ap­pointed com­man­der was Yonatan Ne­tanyahu, brother of the fu­ture prime min­is­ter. I had met Yonatan a num­ber of times, after be­ing told by sev­eral senior of­fi­cers how spe­cial he was, and how much they ex­pected me to like him. He was a great fighter, they elab­o­rated – as­tound­ingly coura­geous – but also some­thing of an in­tel­lec­tual, a lover of lit­er­a­ture. And in­deed, on the oc­ca­sions when we spoke, it was just as likely that we would dis­cuss anti- tank mis­siles as we would the po­etry of Edgar Al­lan Poe. Born the same year as my daugh­ter, he was young enough to be my son, but wise enough to be my con­tem­po­rary.

When Kuti and I ar­rived, Yonatan was on another mis­sion in the Si­nai. His deputy com­man­der, Muki Bet­zer, had as­sumed the duty of brief­ing the com­man­dos on the sit­u­a­tion and lead­ing their prepa­ra­tions for a night raid of the plane – us­ing an empty fuse­lage nearby. But in the early hours of the morn­ing, the plane changed course and was no longer headed for Is­rael, but for East Africa. At 4 a.m. we con­firmed that the pas­sen­ger jet had landed at En­tebbe Air­port, on the banks of Lake Vic­to­ria – 20 miles out­side of Uganda’s cap­i­tal and more than two thou­sand miles from where we were stand­ing.

The chal­lenges this pre­sented were enor­mous. In the af­ter­math of the 1973 war, Rabin and I had worked to mod­ern­ize and re­plen­ish our mil­i­tary, and to pre­pare it for the “long arm” option – an abil­ity to strike tar­gets far beyond our im­me­di­ate hori­zon. But no coun­try or army had ever con­tem­plated a chal­lenge of this di­men­sion. It was go­ing to re­quire a mil­i­tary op­er­a­tion to take place thou­sands of miles away, against armed ter­ror­ists and, per­haps, the Ugan­dan army – all car­ried out with sub­op­ti­mal intelligen­ce, against a tick­ing clock. Most of our senior mil­i­tary lead­er­ship seemed to feel that a mil­i­tary res­cue op­er­a­tion was sim­ply im­pos­si­ble.

While the chal­lenges were great, the stakes were even greater. First, there were the hostages them­selves – more than 100 Is­raelis in grave dan­ger. We would later learn that some of the ter­ror­ists were from Ger­many, and were bark­ing or­ders in Ger­man. One of the hostages, a Holo­caust sur­vivor, had be­come hys­ter­i­cal upon hear­ing the lan­guage. Later she would be re­minded again of the Holo­caust – as would we all – when the hostages were sep­a­rated into two groups, with Jews on one side and non-Jews on the other. It was a haunt­ing whis­per of the past, and a dis­com­fit­ing re­minder of our own obli­ga­tions.

It be­came clear to me that we faced, fun­da­men­tally, a ques­tion of prin­ci­ple. If we were un­able to res­cue the hostages, our only al­ter­na­tive was to ne­go­ti­ate their re­lease, ul­ti­mately giv­ing in to the de­mands of ter­ror­ists. This, I feared, would cre­ate a ter­ri­ble prece­dent with un­known con­se­quences.

“If we give in to the hi­jack­ers’ de­mands and re­lease ter­ror­ists,” I said dur­ing one of the heated govern­ment meet­ings over the com­ing week, “ev­ery­one will un­der­stand us, but no one will re­spect us.” Yet the op­po­site – how­ever grim the re­sults – held: “If, on the other hand, we con­duct a mil­i­tary op­er­a­tion to free hostages, it is pos­si­ble that no one will un­der­stand us – but ev­ery­one will re­spect us.”

I un­der­stood that at­tempt­ing such an au­da­cious and un­likely res­cue posed a great risk to the pas­sen­gers. But my de­ter­mi­na­tion to find an al­ter­na­tive was driven not out of lack of con­cern for their well-be­ing. On the con­trary, it was rooted in the in­ter­est of the lives and safety of pas­sen­gers in the fu­ture. The great­est dan­ger of all was ter­ror­ist or­ga­ni­za­tions con­clud­ing that such ac­tions as those taken in Athens were ef­fec­tive. One plane could be­come hun­dreds. Vic­tims could be mea­sured in the many thou­sands as op­posed to hun­dreds.

We also risked some­thing less mea­sur­able but equally im­por­tant: our na­tional con­fi­dence. Dur­ing the 1967 war, we had demon­strated such an im­pres­sive show­ing of force and skill that we were seen, the world over, as tough and brave. At home, it was a pow­er­ful source of pride. After so many years

of un­cer­tainty, we came to be­lieve that we had achieved our ul­ti­mate aim: se­cur­ing a state that couldn’t be un­done. But in 1973, Egypt and Syria launched a co­or­di­nated as­sault against Is­rael that caught us by to­tal sur­prise. We were able to fend off the at­tack, but at a high cost, and through­out the coun­try there was a sud­den and sharp loss in con­fi­dence. Over the course of a month we’d gone from deeply self-as­sured to deeply un­nerved. It was a re­turn to wari­ness – to openly ex­is­ten­tial ques­tions about our se­cu­rity – and it cre­ated an un­set­tling fear that in the pride­ful wake of the 1967 war, the coun­try’s con­fi­dence had drifted to­ward ar­ro­gance. When I be­came de­fense min­is­ter the fol­low­ing year, I ded­i­cated a sig­nif­i­cant por­tion of my work to fig­ur­ing out what had gone wrong, and to cor­rect­ing the de­fi­cien­cies that had al­lowed such a catas­tro­phe. We or­dered a ma­jor over­haul of the mil­i­tary intelligen­ce, which had failed to warn us of the im­mi­nent at­tack. In the mean­time, I spent my days read­ing hun­dreds of pages of raw ma­te­rial, rather than re­ly­ing on the Intelligen­ce Corps’s as- sess­ments. I was even known to do unan­nounced spot checks through­out Is­rael, mak­ing sure that the new rules we put in place across the mil­i­tary were be­ing fol­lowed.

We were still ban­dag­ing our wounds that sum­mer of 1976. Great em­pires have fallen when their peo­ple lost con­fi­dence in them. Great coun­tries and great com­pa­nies, too. Is­rael was fu­eled by the am­bi­tions of its peo­ple, and a cri­sis of this na­ture jeop­ar­dized our own sense of self and, in turn, our fu­ture state.

“If we will need to re­lease ter­ror­ists,” I wrote one night dur­ing the com­ing drama, “Is­rael will look like a rag, and even worse, she will be one.”

In the face of such an ex­tra­or­di­nary sit­u­a­tion, I knew there was lit­tle choice but to act. When I was told there was no way to make a res­cue pos­si­ble, I de­cided to heed the words of my late men­tor, Ben-Gu­rion. “If an ex­pert says it can’t be done, get another ex­pert.” ■

(David El­dan/GPO)

DE­FENSE MIN­IS­TER Shi­mon Peres speaks in Tel Aviv dur­ing a press con­fer­ence after the IDF res­cue op­er­a­tion in En­tebbe in July 1976.

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