Good teachers keep up with their students and rejoice when they demonstrate they’ve learned their lessons well. I want to be a good teacher, and our “student,” Israel, has learned the lessons of democracy extraordinarily well.
This A-plus in democratic behavior was brought sharply to mind this past week when President Trump’s on-again, off-again retaliatory airstrike against Iran became the No. 1 story worldwide. Trump’s action did not copy Israel’s, but you’ll have no trouble deducing the connection.
In early July of l976, while we Americans were celebrating our big Bicentennial – our 200th birthday party – terrorists hijacked a plane full of innocent tourists and travelers en route from Israel to France and held over 100 of them (the ones identified as Jews) hostage inside a well-barricaded hangar at the Entebbe airport in the East African nation of Uganda.
Day after day the world anguished over the seeming impossibility of achieving anything resembling a happy ending. Israel quit anguishing and commenced preparations for a dramatic commando raid to rescue the hostages. The Israeli plan called for two planeloads of elite commandos, Israel’s Sayeret Matkal (aka “The Unit”), and featured a replica of Ugandan strongman Idi Amin’s personal limousine and a startlingly authentic body-double whose mission was to drive around the airport barking orders not to shoot the Israeli liberators!
The Entebbe raid (known as “Operation Thunderbolt”) will long be enshrined in the annals of special forces successes. Some hostages and rescuers were wounded, but fatalities (other than the hijackers and some Ugandan soldiers supporting them) were limited to four of the hostages and the heroic leader of the raid, Yonatan Netanyahu, who was the elder brother of Israel’s current prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu (who also had served in the Sayeret Matkal and had, in 1972, been wounded in a similar operation to free hijacked passengers held hostage at an Israeli airport).
There was one major problem with the Israeli plan. To be effective, the planes would have to take off from Israel and fly to Kenya for refueling, with not a second to lose. And Israel, as a democracy, had to debate and vote on whether the raid should go forward as planned or not. Here’s where America’s pride in its Israeli “students” fans outward into pure political glory. It was quickly agreed upon that the planes should take off and head southward. When they reached the Gulf of Aqaba they would maintain a holding pattern, circling until they got the word from Jerusalem that the raid had been approved and they could proceed.
The coded signal that the raid had been cleared came before the planes completed even their first circle!
Some tasty little tidbits about the operation should be noted. Idi Amin was an Israeli paratrooper. On the level! Amin had gone to Israel, trained with the IDF and earned his wings with that elite group. This doesn’t mean he would welcome seeing his fellow paratroopers display their awesome capabilities in the upcoming raid upon Entebbe airport. By the time of the hijacking his relationship with Israel had soured.
The operation was planned with the help of detailed information about the layout of the Entebbe airport and its buildings. That was furnished by the Israeli construction company that had been involved in building the airport.
Also, Israeli intelligence knew that Amin had developed a close friendship with Israel’s military attaché in Uganda, Col. Baruch Bar-Lev. Their wives (Amin had several) and children had socialized together, and the two military men enjoyed many long conversations via telephone after Bar-Lev returned to Israel. Israeli intelligence further learned that Idi had only one telephone in his bedroom, and his armed forces were terrified to knock on his bedroom door come hell, high water or a rescue mission staged by Israelis.
Simple arithmetic told the Israeli rescue forces what time Bar-Lev should call to talk with his good friend Idi Amin. This effectively took Idi Amin out of the action and facilitated his being replaced by a body double.
Our Israeli friends have carried democracy into the roughest part of the Middle East.
And now the actions threatening Israel on an almost daily basis are much more immediate than the hijacking of Israeli airliners thousands of miles away.
It’s too bad that to what most countries in the world might be a minor skirmish, to the Israelis might be “the final exam.” They certainly got straight A’s on Entebbe!
P.S. Another little pop-cultural tidbit is that Yaphet Kotto, the towering (6-foot-4-inch) black actor who played Idi Amin in the 1977 TV movie “Raid on Entebbe,” is Jewish. And he’s not a convert. He comes from a long line of African Jews.