On Sunday, as Cpl. Gilad Shalit's terrorist captors in Gaza prepared their ultimatum, in Jerusalem, at the Mt. Herzl military cemetery a crowd stood quietly around a grave, bowed their heads and remembered one of the greatest heroes the State of Israel has produced.
The 30th memorial ceremony for Lt.-Col. Yonatan Netanyahu, who was killed on July 4, 1976 while commanding the raid that freed more than 100 hostages held in Entebbe by Palestinian and German terrorists, could not have come at a more significant moment. For Israel's Arab enemies, who today hold Cpl. Shalit, no doubt the decision to set July 4, 2006 as their deadline for Israeli surrender to their demands is motivated by their desire to wipe out for the world Yoni's legacy and that of the Entebbe raid he led.
The legacy of Entebbe for the world couldn't be clearer. The message of the raid is that nations must never give in to the demands of terrorists. Through their war crime of taking over the Air France jet, the terrorists declared war not only on Israel but on all who abide by the norms of human decency and value freedom. If Israel is brought to its knees 30 years later, it will send the message throughout the world that the barbarians are the victors after all.
While the Entebbe raid is vested with deep significance for the entire world, its significance in shaping Israel's national psyche has been deeper still. This was apparent on Sunday evening on Mt. Herzl. As speakers stood at the foot of his grave and one by one discussed the significance of Yoni's life and his death for Israelis today and for generations of Israelis to come, it was clear that Yoni – now immortal – is an embodiment of Israeli exceptionalism, Israeli morality, Israeli Judaism, the Israeli warrior ethos and the inherent justice of Zionism.
ADDRESSING THE mourners, Maj.-Gen. (res.) Yossi Ben-Hannan – whom Yoni rescued when Ben-Hannan was wounded and caught behind Syrian lines during the Yom Kippur War – discussed Yoni's legacy for Cpl. Shalit.
As he sits alone with his captors in Gaza, Ben-Hannan said that Shalit has hope. His hope is based on the knowledge – seared into the collective consciousness of our nation at Entebbe – that the IDF does not leave men behind. Yoni, Ben-Hanan noted, "is one of the foundations of this moral underpinning."
Yet, just as Yoni's memory and that of the heroic raid he led at Entebbe is one that Israel's enemies are desperate to blot out, so too in Israel's culture wars there are powerful forces vested in tearing down Yoni's memory and in dwarfing the significance of the Entebbe raid. Indeed, these forces, motivated by a mix of envy and politics, have been attacking Yoni for 20 years. The aim of his detractors is not dissimilar from that of Israel's enemies. His domestic foes also wish to weaken the power of Yoni's legacy and the legacy of Entebbe over Israel's national ethos. They too wish to make Israelis believe that we have no option other than to placate our enemies.
THE ASSAULT against Yoni has been led by Muki Betzer, who served as his deputy in the Sayeret Matcal reconnaissance unit. In 1986 Betzer gave a series of media interviews in which he argued that he, not Yoni had planned the raid at Entebbe. This claim gradually morphed into a full-scale attack on Yoni and his family for their work in memorializing him. Betzer claims that Yoni was not a hero but a failure and that the Entebbe raid succeeded in spite of Yoni rather than because of him. Indeed, according to Betzer, it was Betzer, not Yoni who saved the day.
Initially Betzer was reviled as a jealous pretender. His attacks against the Netanyahu family were seen as grotesque assaults on a bereaved family. Yet, over the years, the Israeli political and cultural Left adopted Betzer's revisionist history of the Entebbe raid and his criticisms of Yoni as a cause celebre.
Tearing down Yoni was seen as a way of breaking the morale of society and so of convincing the Israeli people that we have no option other than appeasement. By destroying what people like former education minister and Meretz leader Shulamit Aloni describe as the "sacred cows" of Israel's national ethos, the Left very publicly set out to culturally subvert Israeli society.
Betzer's assault on Yoni became increasingly acceptable in the early 1990s, when then prime minister Yitzhak Rabin recognized the PLO and began giving land to Yasser Arafat. In 1993 Avigdor Shahan published a revisionist history of Entebbe based on Betzer's attacks on Yoni. In 1994, the "alternative" theater festival in Afula awarded first prize to a play by Etgar Karat that attacked Yoni's brothers Iddo and Binyamin for their work chronicling Yoni's life. Karat's below the belt assault included obscene insinuations regarding Yoni's masculinity.
FOR TWENTY years, in keeping with the tradition of secrecy that is the mark of their covert unit, Yoni's soldiers refused to weigh in on the issue. Unfortunately, Betzer used their reticence as cover for his increasingly sharp attacks. As the 30th anniversary of the Entebbe raid approached, Betzer launched an all-out assault against his martyred commander.
On June 16, Amir Oren in Haaretz published an article based on interviews with Betzer. Oren concluded, "The sad truth, which Netanyahu's commanders and comrades first tried to hide, is that his contribution to the raid was between marginal and negative."
This libelous attack on Yoni, together with Oren's aggrandizement of Betzer, caused Yoni's soldiers to break their silence. The day after Oren's article was published, 15 of the officers and men who participated in the raid published a declaration defending Yoni and attacking those "who think it is possible to rewrite history, and attempt for years to create their own versions" of what happened.
The warriors wrote, "We were silent until now not because we have nothing to say but because we think that neither Yoni Netanyahu, nor we his soldiers, need additional glory – we are proud of what we did. But this does not mean that we will sit by passively at a time when others are trying to glorify themselves not only by putting down other warriors and distorting their role in the mission, but also by attacking someone who cannot respond – Yoni Netanyahu.
"Yoni was killed at the hour that he commanded the force of Sayeret Matcal. As the commander of the unit, he planned and prepared the unit's mission with his officers from the start. Because of him, his warriors and staff members, the unit successfully rescued the hostages. Yoni justifiably became a national hero and we will not allow for his memory to be defiled and will not accept continuous attempts to distort Yoni's contribution and what we and our comrades did in the operation.
"We were there."
IN AN interview with Yediot Aharonot last Friday, Yoni's soldiers also weighed in on the capture of Cpl. Shalit. Maj. (res.) Avi Weiss, former deputy director of the Mossad and former POW in Syria, said, "Just as then, at Entebbe, we refused to surrender to the terrorists' demands, the message must now be the same message: We do not give into the demands of kidnappers."
In deciding to put an end to Betzer's unanswered attacks, Yoni's soldiers worked not only to defeat those who assault Yoni's honor. Their defense of Yoni serves as a counterattack against those who assault the very notion of honor. In defending Yoni, they moved to defeat those within Israeli society that seek to demoralize us by distorting our national memory.
It is now the duty of the IDF and the government to ensure that on Entebbe's 30th anniversary, Israel does not allow our enemies to wipe out the international and strategic legacy of that heroic operat
Originally published in The Jerusalem Post.