30 years ago today Israel had a very happy prime minister. A precise mix of reasons, together with IDF heroics, and almost all the hostages returned home safely.
The need to deal with a cruel ultimatum was done away with. Yitzhak Rabin was spared the need to choose between the pride of not caving in to terror, and the need to visit bereaved families. The price – four dead – was minimal, compared to the saving of nearly 100 lives and strong praise around the world.
There is no question that the government that approved Operation Yonatan in July 1976 earned its praise. Had Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Defense Minister Moshe Dayan failed to adopt the plan presented by the IDF, the soldiers' bravery and improvisational skills would not have gone very far.
Exception, not the rule
But we can also say that the Entebbe story is the exception when talking about hostage crises, not the rule. We can say that the senior government ministers of that time performed honorably at that time, but also because Entebbe - with its specific numbers – provided an option that would not have been possible had the hijackers flown the plane to another location.
That crisis was done away with thanks to Israeli politicians, but not necessarily because of their stellar abilities to navigate such crises.
We must remember this, not only in the name of historical accuracy, but also in light of criticisms leveled at the current government. Since Cpl. Gilad Shalilt was kidnapped early last week, and especially since the kidnappers issued an ultimatum Monday morning, we have heard many criticisms that the country is being run by inexperienced people, and that the price we will all pay for this could be very heavy.
If only we had the staff we had at the time of the Entebbe rescue – we can hear a rustle underground – then we'd have people we could count on. If people with a little bit more experience than Ehud Olmert and Amir Peretz stood atop the pyramid it would be easier to trust their judgments about saving the hostages' life and deterrence against more kidnappings in the future.
No 'if only's'
Sadly, not only are there no "if only's" – except for the Entebbe incident (and the IDF force that freed the hijacked Sabena plane in 1972), there are no other examples of similar operations. Just about every incident in the past (that happened on the watch of "experienced" statesmen) yielded less than stellar results.
Just a few examples: The POW exchange following the 1956 Sinai Campaign (authorized by David Ben-Gurion himself) failed to include several key Israeli hostages held in Egypt. Then there was the prisoner exchange of May, 1985 (under the experienced hands of Shimon Peres, Rabin, and Yitzhak Shamir) that planted more than a few seeds for the first intifadah, and the Elhanan Tanenbaum trade (2004) conducted by Ariel Sharon.And we've said nothing of the Savoy Hotel incident, another incident in which our "experienced" senior statesmen failed to perform so well.
These lines were written before 6 a.m. on July 4, 2006., after the Israeli government said rejected the ultimatum presented by Gilad Shalit's captors and before their deadline expired. We do not know what their decision was based on. We have yet to hear the polished statements of Olmert and Peretz. Maybe we won't hear any.
But nostalgia has nothing to do with the current situation.