Saturday 30 July 2016

The Legacy of Entebbe Lives On

Forty years have passed since the rescue of Jewish hostages was carried out by IDF soldiers at Uganda's Entebbe airport.  A number of events were held recently to mark the occasion, and to remember all that happened in the hijacking of the Air France plane, the separation of the Jewish hostages from the others and the ultimate rescue of the hostages in an astonishing operation by IDF troops.  With a heavy heart, the victims of this hijacking and rescue operation were also remembered and commemorated.  In total, 4 of the hostages were killed as well as the IDF commander of the operation, Lt. Col. Yonni Netanyahu.  Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chose this opportunity to visit Entebbe for the first time, to personally witness the place where his older brother was killed.

Operation Thunderbolt  was renamed Operation Yonatan to commemorate its fallen commander.  With the luxury of hindsight to look back on this operation, the legacy that Operation Yonatan has left for Israel and its security establishment can be assessed.  This rescue mission was undoubtedly one of the most daring and audacious missions of its type during its day, and even since then.  It has been the subject of numerous books, movies and military case studies, such has been the level of interest into the operation.  Besides the audacity and sheer chutzpa involved in pulling off this operation, the tiny details that were taken into consideration and the very short period of time within which all the preparations were made, have served to elevate the mission to legendary status.

The ramifications of this operation in Israel, and in the Jewish world in general, have been profound.  The operation has elevated Israel's secret service, the Mossad, to be afforded greater respect and recognition by lay people and peers in a way that other secret service organisations do not enjoy.  Because much of the work undertaken by secret service organisations, particularly the Mossad, is secret by its nature and is seldom made public, it is difficult to measure the effectiveness and the successes of the organisation.  Operation Yonatan was a visible sign of success, not only for the IDF, but indeed for the Israeli secret service.  It was, after all, the Mossad who were responsible for much of the intelligence-gathering, and who were integrally involved in every step of the operation.  It was one of the few visible successes that the Mossad would be happy to be publicly associated with, and which served to demonstrate its amazing capabilities.  This operation (along with a few others), has given the Mossad the status of a legend in the secret service world.  Israel's enemies know that they should be on their guard to expect the unexpected.  They have learned from this that very little is beyond the Mossad's capabilities.  Not only does the Mossad have the ability to carry out these types of operations, it also has the audacity and fearlessness to do so.  That legend continues to the current day.  Frequently, when crazy and improbable "accidents" occur that impair the work being done by Israel's enemies, the Mossad is the first organisation suspected of involvement.  Despite the automatic suspicion of the Mossad and the close monitoring of its operations, it is extremely seldom that hard evidence can be brought to confirm involvement of Mossad agents in an operation.  Rather than causing the Mossad to operate with impunity or carelessness, it gives the Mossad the impetus to carry out more and greater operations in the protection of the State of Israel and Jews around the world.

The fact that Operation Yonatan rescued both Israeli and non-Israeli Jews has also left its mark.  There is no other country around the world, whose secret service operates to protect the citizens of countries that are not its own.  And yet, this is the hallmark of the Mossad, as borne out by Operation Yonatan, when it comes to the protection of Jews who are not citizens of Israel.  The reason that the hostages were separated in Entebbe as they were, had nothing to do with them being citizens of Israel.  Instead, they were separated on the basis of whether they were Jewish or not.  Exactly as was the case during the Shoah.  Clearly, the Israelis were automatically included in the group of Jews, but they were not alone.  When Operation Yonatan was carried out, it was carried out in the name of all the Jews in the group, whether they were Israeli or not.  This was further evidence from the government of Israel, and from the instruments of the government, that the country stands ready to help Jews from all corners of the earth.  This was cemented into law when the Law of Return was enacted to allow Jews to claim immediate citizenship of the State of Israel, and has been demonstrated in numerous rescue missions of Jews when they were considered to be in danger.  Operation Yonatan was another significant sign of this commitment.

Little has changed over the past 40 years in terms of the threat that confronts Jews, no matter where they happen to be in the world.  We have seen Jews establish a level of comfort in their host countries, only to come under threat again.  The latest wave of violence in Europe, and in France in particular, has certainly been directed against Jews.  It is with pride and confidence that the State of Israel reaches out to these Jews to offer them protection in their homes, but also to offer them a home with greater protection.  And we have seen these Jews take up on this in their droves.  This is, amongst other things, the legend of Operation Yonatan.  Wherever Jews are in the world, the Jewish state will protect them.

Perhaps the greatest legacy left by Operation Yonatan comes in a much more personal form.  The death of Yonni Netanyahu left a scar on his family, and left a profound mark on a 27 year-old MIT student.  This student was Benjamin Netanyahu, younger brother of Yonni.  In his own words, the death of his older brother, "changed my life and steered it to its current course".  It is tough to judge to what extent the death of Yonni really spurred Benjamin to achieve what he has achieved over the years.  It is possible that he would have risen to be prime minister of Israel and one of the most influential leaders on earth, even without the push that he received from Yonni's death.  But we know about what he has managed to do in rising to be one of the best known and most influential people, and the influence that he has exerted over the years.  And we know that much of this has been with Yonni in mind.  The visit to Entebbe by the prime minister was not only in his capacity as prime minister, but was intensely personal as he mourned at the location where  his older brother and hero met his death.  One could not help wondering what Yonni would be thinking as he looked down on the scene from his seat in heaven.

As we look at the events at Entebbe with the benefit of 40 years of hindsight, the legacy is probably stronger now than it was in the euphoric days that followed the operation.  The strong message sent out by the Israeli government regarding its commitment to protect Jews around the world, and the message sent out by the IDF and the Mossad regarding their ability to do so, are louder and clearer than before.  And the personal impact left on one young student who went on to be one of the world's most recognisable personalities is unquestionable.  If the same set of circumstances presented themselves again, I have no doubt that the response would be no different.  This ultimately proves the greatness of the operation.

Sunday 3 July 2016

Goodbye to EU

Image courtesy
It has come as a surprise to many, especially to me, that the UK has voted to leave the EU.  Apparently, I was not the only one to be surprised.  The UK government has been paralysed by the surprise of this vote.  Even though I knew that the outcome of the referendum was always going to be close, I thought that the undecided voters were more likely to take a conservative view and sway the overall result to opt for the status quo.  In spit of this, the decision to Brexit has been made in an unequivocal manner by a majority of more than a million votes.  The people of the UK have spoken.

Commentators in Israel have been analysing the consequences for Israel of the UK leaving the EU.  The assessments that I have seen have been fairly superficial, and there seems to be no consensus as to whether the UK leaving the EU will be a good or bad thing for Israel.  While the relationship between Israel and the UK is likely to remain unchanged for the foreseeable future, and the same can be said of the relationship between Israel and the EU, I hold the view that the UK's exit from the EU is a very good thing for Israel for a number of reasons.

It is well known and widely acknowledged that the UK and the EU have very different positions on Israel.  While the UK is a friend of Israel's and has done much in the international community to support Israel and encourage understanding towards Israel and the challenges that she faces, the same cannot be said of the EU.  It is somewhat ironic that, while some of Europe's strongest nations hold a supportive view towards Israel. the formal position adopted by the EU as an organisation is so negative.  This position silences the individual countries like the UK who are members of the EU, and whose view is contrary to that adopted by the EU.  As a respected country in the international community, we can expect to hear the UK's voice more loudly in the future.  This is not only on the matter of Israel, but potentially on many other matters as well.  From an Israeli point of view, we very much look forward to hearing an independent UK voice in the international community, rather than the muted and diluted voice that has been drowned out by the EU.

It seems clear to me that the UK vote was substantially influenced by the refugee crisis in Europe last summer, when Europe was overrun with refugees from Syria and north Africa.  While many of the migrants were escaping from war zones and could be classed as true refugees, there was a significant number who were really economic migrants trying to gain access to Europe for a better economic future for them and their families.  And, while this objective is one to be respected and supported wherever possible, it is clear that Europe does not have the ability or economic strength to absorb all of those economic migrants who would like to move there.  The UK has long ago discovered that it is almost impossible to preserve her borders as part of the EU, and to keep unwanted migrants out.  The EU has established EU-wide rules for admission of refugees, and has open borders within the union that allows the free flow of people from one EU member country to another.  What also became blatantly clear last summer, was that the EU rules for admitting refugees have a much greater impact on some member countries than others.  Most of the migrants swarming from Syria and elsewhere into Europe, were determined to make their way to the UK and Germany in particular.  This was not a new phenomenon, as is evidenced by the encampments near Calais in France containing thousands who are waiting for their opportunity to secret their way across the English Channel.  Many EU countries, who carry an equal vote when deciding on matters such as allowing refugees into the union, were not having to bear the consequences of their decision at all.  Instead, the refugees were heading straight to the UK and one or two other countries.  The citizens of the UK found that they had no way of securing their borders against unwanted migrants, while a member of the EU.  The EU was determining this on their behalf.  I see the vote to leave the EU as an exercise of the right to secure borders.  This position will certainly be one that Israel can identify with in the strongest terms.

The decision by the UK to leave the EU seems to be a slippery slope.  Reports suggest that another half a dozen EU members, emboldened by the British vote, are lining up to hold a similar referendum on continued membership of the union.  There can be no doubt that the Brexit decision has weakened the EU as an organisation, and that further referendums and decisions to leave will serve to weaken it even more.  This could perhaps be the beginning of the end of the EU.  If one of the other founding members decides to leave the EU, I predict that this could potentially be a trigger for the EU to disentigrate completely.  Israel will not be heartbroken over such a break-up, if it occurs.  While the EU is a significant trading partner for Israel, the EU has been a political thorn in Israel's side.  Israel would much prefer to allow each EU member to present its views in the international community on an individual basis, rather than have the EU present the view of the majority of members as one single European view.  The larger and more influential European countries are largely supporters of Israel.  Their view is diluted by other smaller and less influential European countries, but whose vote carries equal weight within the EU voting system in determining foreign policy.

Anything that weakens the EU and its standing in the international community, will help Israel's cause.  The EU has been critical of Israel's attempts to protect herself against terorism and attacks against her citizens.  The EU has a strong position within the UN, the Quartet and other international organisations that are active on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, but has constantly supported almost anything that the Palestinians say against Israel.  The union has placed significant pressure on Israel to take "confidence-building" steps by giving in to demands being made by the Palestinians.  When these demands are not matched by confidence-building steps by the Palestinians, it feels like Israel is being forced to take unilateral actions that ultimately weaken her position.  The EU has been at the forefront of forcing Israel to take such actions.

The more I think about the result of the Brexit vote, the more surprised I am about it.  And the more convinced I am that this will be good for Israel's situation in the international community.  I admire those UK citizens who made the difficult decision to follow this route, and feel confident that it will ultimately be good for their country, and good for ours.