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