Thursday, March 26, 2015

Brothers In Arms

Since 1996, when he was elected Prime Minister of Israel for the first time, Benjamin Netanyahu has been recognized as one of the most important leaders in the world as a whole. Right now he is the undisputed leader of the free world -- of humanity's "good guys," if you will -- and is fulfilling that role with resolve.

Although everyone knows that his devotion to his principles runs strong, many people (including some of his fans) are unaware of the deep, familial headwaters that give rise to those principles.

Three years before Benjamin was born in Tel Aviv, his brother Jonathan was born in New York City.  decades before that, their father was born in Poland and their mother in a Middle East Jewish settlement known as Petah Tikva. Four births in one family tree, compressed within 39 years yet scattered across three continents: How's that for a vivid microcosm of the forced diaspora that has afflicted the Jewish people for 2,700 years?

Benjamin's father, Benzion, was the son of noted rabbi Nathan Mileikowsky. The family surname was changed to Netanyahu after Nathan took his wife and children to the Jews' ancestral homeland in 1920. That homeland, which includes the modern countries of Israel and Jordan, was governed by the UK at the time. After moving among a few towns in the region, the Netanyahus finally settled in Jerusalem. While living there between the ages of 23 and 30, Benzion worked as an editor at a library; as the editor of a daily newspaper; and as co-editor of a monthly publication.

By the time Benzion journeyed to New York in August 1940 to work as Ze'ev Jabotinsky's secretary, Hitler's Holocaust was already underway. Jabotinsky died of a heart attack in August of that year, after which Benzion became the executive director of his New Zionist Organization's American branch. Benzion remained in the U.S. for nine years and it was during this time that his wife, Tzila, gave birth to Jonathan.

Following the establishment of the new nation of Israel, the Netanyahus returned to that part of Earth to make it their home. Tzila gave birth to Benjamin shortly after they arrived, and three years later she bore their third son, Iddo, who grew up to become a radiologist and author. Iddo currently resides most of the year in Israel and the remainder in New York. When he is in New York, he works at St. James Mercy Hospital.

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All three of Benzion and Tzali's sons served in Sayeret Matkal, a special ops commando unit of the Israeli Army. Obviously Benjamin and Iddo, now in their sixties, have gone on to build esteemed post-military careers -- but tragically, eldest son Jonathan was never able to experience a post-military life, for he was killed in action less than four months after his 30th birthday.

Jonathan's battlefield endeavors were so successful that the Israeli public knew his name even before his heroic death. In 1972 he commanded an operation in which Syrian officers were captured, then returned in exchange for the release of abducted Israeli pilots... In 1973 he participated in Operation Spring of Youth, which took out the leaders of the terrorist organization Black September... During the Yom Kippur War he helped repel a Syrian invasion of the interior Golan Heights, and went behind enemy lines to rescue this wounded soldier... Subsequently, he was granted command of the 188th Armored Brigade and transformed it into the Golan's leading military unit.

Then came the summer of 1976. On June 27th, Air France Flight 139 departed Tel Aviv en route to Paris, with a scheduled stop in Athens. 58 additional passengers boarded in Athens, among whom were four terrorists working together for different organizations: A pair of Palestinians from the PFLP-EO and a pair of Germans from the Revolutionary Cells.

Shortly after leaving Athens, the terrorists sprung into action by hijacking the plane and redirecting it to Benghazi for a temporary stop. While there, they refueled and let one passenger (a pregnant woman who pretended she was having a miscarriage) get off before they again took to the skies. Eventually, more than a full day after the plane's departure from Tel Aviv, the terrorists forced it to land at the airport in Entebbe, Uganda, on the shore of crocodile-infested Lake Victoria.

Once there, they were joined by four more terrorists and received military support from the the army of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin. The passengers and crew were moved into the transit hall of an unused terminal at the airport, where they were held as hostages at gunpoint. One day later, on June 29th, the terrorists separated the passengers and crew into two groups, one of which they believed to contain all of the Jewish and Israeli passengers while the other was believed to contain all the non-Jews and non-Israelis.

The majority of the non-Jew, non-Israeli group, including the entire flight crew, were released in two waves on June 30th and July 1st... The remaining 105 people were kept captive and used as bargaining chips, with the terrorists threatening to kill them unless 40 Palestinian and pro-Palestinian militants were released from prisons in Israel, and an additional 13 Palestinian and pro-Palestinian militants were released from prisons in other countries... After Israel's government agreed to negotiate, the terrorists issued an ultimatum, affirming that they would start killing at 1:00 p.m. on July 4th if their demands were not met.

Israel attempted to reach a diplomatic resolution, using the U.S. as an intermediary to solicit help from Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in their negotiations. Sadat reached out to Amin and to PLO leader Yasser Arafat, but to no avail. Arafat dispatched his right hand man to Uganada to speak with Amin and the terrorists; but the terrorists refused to meet even with Arafat's man, despite claiming that they, like him, were seeking to advance Palestinian interests. While these futile efforts were ongoing, the Israel Defense Forces prepared to execute a daring rescue codenamed Operation Thunderbolt.

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Operation Thunderbolt's aircraft consisted of three Lockheed C130 turbopros to transport soldiers; a fourth C130 to carry the freed hostages back to safety; one Boeing 707 to serve as a command post; another Boeing 707 to serve as an airborne hospital if needed; and several McDonnell-Douglas F4 fighter jets, to escort the convoy during the first third of its flight.

Pegged to lead the 29-man rescue force, Jonathan Netanyahu rode in the lead C130 with the troops who were under his command. Also in the plane were a black Mercedes limousine identical to Idi Amin's, and two Land Rovers of the kind usually used to escort Amin when he was driven somewhere in his Mercedes.

The convoy took off on July 3th and followed an international flight corridor south over the Red Sea, travelling less than 100 feet over the water to avoid being detected by radar. As they neared the southern end of the Red Sea, they turned and traveled across Africa, passing through the airspace of Ethiopia and Kenya. It is believed that they also traversed a portion of Somali airspace.

The flight took 7 hours, 40 minutes. As the convoy approached its destination just shy of 11:00 p.m., it was forced to skirt around thunderstorms over Lake Victoria before descending to the airport. The runway lights were unexpectedly on, but the planes were still able to land without being detected, their cargo bays already open, at 11:01.

The copy of Amin's motorcade, commandos hidden inside, left the lead C130 and drove to a sentry point. The expectation was that they would be waived through, under the mistaken belief that they were what they appeared to clearly be. However, one of the sentries possessed the uncommon knowledge that Amin had recently purchased a white Mercedes, so as a matter of caution, he motioned for the vehicles to stop. At this point some of the commandos used silenced pistols to shoot the sentries, and the vehicles continued on to the terminal where the hostages were being held.

Upon arrival, the commandos, led by Netanyahu, sprung from the vehicles and speedily stormed the terminal, taking both the hijackers and hostages by surprise. All eight terrorists were killed by the time the mission was done.

As they entered the terminal, a megaphone was used to yell the following in both Hebrew and English: "Stay down! Stay down! We are Israeli soldiers!" Tragically, one of the hostages stood and was gunned down because he was thought to be a terrorist. As the commandos proceeded to search the terminal and engage the terrorists when they encountered them, crossfire claimed the lives of two other unfortunate hostages.

While the rescue force was performing its duty inside the terminal, Israeli soldiers on the outside went about destroying the Soviet-built MiG-17 fighter jets on the runway, thus preventing the Ugandan Air Force from pursuing them after they escaped.

Emerging from the terminal as the clock's hands moved toward midnight, the rescue force, with Jonathan Netanyahu at the front, hurriedly guided the 102 freed hostages to the waiting aircraft. At 11:59 p.m., all of the planes were airborne and on their way to freedom. The operation, which planners had expected to take 60 minutes, was completed in 58.

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For the nation of Israel, and for all international supporters of freedom, Operation Thunderbolt was an event of inspiring victory. For the Netanyahu family, however, it was an event of unspeakable tragedy. As Jonathan was leading the way across the runway in the mission's final moments, he was shot in the chest, presumably by a sniper, and died almost instantly.

Ugandan forces, many of whom were positioned in the air control tower, were firing upon the line of people making their urgent way to the planes. Israeli soldiers returned fire by shooting at the tower with machine guns and a rocket-propelled grenade, thus helping suppress the amount of Ugandan gunfire. In a testament to the bravery and positioning of the commandos who escorted the evacuees, not a single evacuee was shot during the dash from the terminal to the planes, while bullets did strike five commandos in addition to their fallen leader. Each of the five survived.

Jonathan's body was dragged into one of the planes before it took off. He was the only Israeli combatant to perish in Operation Thunderbolt, which still ranks as the highest point in the history of the Israeli military.

One of the last photos taken of Jonathan Netanyahu

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Jonathan Netanyahu was given a hero's funeral in Jerusalem, where his remains were interred at the Military Cemetery on Mount Herzl. Throngs of citizens attended. Shimon Peres, who was then Defense Minister and would later become Prime Minister, delivered one of the eulogies.

Three years later, Benjamin Netanyahu, months before his 30th birthday, established The Jonathan Institute to sponsor international conferences about terrorism and the means by which it should be opposed.

One year after that, many of the personal letters Jonathan had written over a 13-year period were published in a book that was called, simply enough, The Letters of Jonathan Netanyahu.

In one of them, penned to his parents in 1969, he noted: "In another week I'll be 23. On me, on us, the young men of Israel, rests the duty of keeping our country safe. This is a heavy responsibility, which matures us early... I do not regret what I have done and what I'm about to do. I'm convinced that what I am doing is right."

In a December 1973 letter to Benjamin, he remarked: "We're preparing for war, and it's hard to know what to expect. What I'm positive of is that there will be a next round, and another after that. But I would rather opt for living here in continual battle than for becoming part of the wandering Jewish people. Any compromise will simply hasten the end. As I don't intend to tell my grandchildren about the Jewish state in the twentieth century as a mere brief and transient episode in thousands of years of wandering, I intend to hold on here with all my might."

In a letter awash with personal contemplation, written to his girlfriend Bruria late in 1974, Jonathan wrote: "I told you that I had lost my innocence and my blind faith in the eternity of love. And that's a pity -- truly a pity, because I want to believe in it with my whole being... We are separated for too long at a time for us to be bound together forever. There's something hopeless and very sad about this feeling."

In response to Bruria having asked about having children, he explained that "I said what I said because I'm not thinking that far ahead -- because a child is the most wonderful creation and the final bond between a man and a woman (at least, that's how I see it, or let's say, that's how it should be and how I'd want it to be). And I'm not thinking that far ahead because I'm not convinced it's eternal. I only wish I could free myself of this doubt."

This was not the kind of man who takes up arms because he is warped and derives pleasure from killing with bombs and grenades. In other words, he was not the oafish, cretinous, cartoon version of a military man that American liberals envision in the fevered corners of their collective imagination. Nor was he that other false (and dare I say anti-Semitic?) image that American liberals frequently conjure when thinking of Israel: That of an unfeeling oppressor determined to murder the poor, disenfranchised Palestinians in his midst.

To the contrary, Jonathan Netanyahu was a principled thinker and brave man who was profoundly affected by his observations and experiences. He was precisely how American author Herman Wouk described him: "A taciturn philosopher-soldier of terrific endurance... almost a symbol of the nation itself... Today his name is spoken there with soft reverence."

To the same point, Benjamin Netanyahu is not the scheming oppressor or weapons-toting cowboy that the American Left makes him out to be... He, like his late brother, believes in things that are bigger and more important than himself. He believes in such things because the walk of his life has shown him how consequential they are... He views the world realistically, based on having traveled its breadth while living most of his life in one of its most perilous corners. He views it with a complete understanding of human nature, because his home is a tiny nation surrounded by mortal enemies who aim to slaughter its citizens en masse and erase it from the map.

Benjamin Netanyahu knows, and feels the scars of, the ultimate price that Jonathan Netanyahu paid to uphold such principles as religious liberty and freedom of conscience. Therefore, he (like America's Founding Fathers, if you don't mind me borrowing some words from the Declaration of Independence) is willing to pledge his life, fortune, and sacred honor to defend those principles from the forces of evil.

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One need not be a religious fanatic to believe there is something divinely inspired about the United States and Israel, and about our historically protective friendship.

Both nations exist because of explicit ideals. Both nations are based on creed, not merely on ethnicity. Both have spent their national lives (or at least the majority of their national lives) defending the rights of man against the ever-grasping forces of totalitarianism.

And yes, both have been hated for standing up for what is right. And yes, the hatred often comes even from friends -- from friends who are in fact helped rather than harmed by our existence.

Here is something that makes goosebumps ripple the flesh: Just one minute after Operation Thunderbolt's planes were lifted into the sky with the freed hostages on board, the calendar turned to the 4th of July in the year 1976, the 200th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

The Jewish Virtual Library puts it like this: "As America celebrated its Bicentennial, the world was reminded that freedom is a value which must be fought for in every generation."

America's current leader is obviously not up to the task. Fortunately, Israel's is. The stakes are high right now, and as sad as it makes me to say this, America's people should support Israel's prime minister against our own president.

When you consider Barack Obama's endless refusals to defend America's founding ideals; his serial mishandling of world affairs; his repeated tendency to do things that make it easier for totalitarians to attack us and others; his petty, peevish penchant for treating friends like enemies; and his utter disregard for the harm his actions impose on common people, not only in America but in many countries of the world... well, it seems that supporting Benjamin Netanyahu and opposing Barack Obama is the American thing to do.

Image result for benjamin netanyahu at jonathan netanyahu's grave
Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara, visiting Jonathan's grave

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