Shimon Peres: Hawk-like dove behind most audacious anti-terror mission (Tribute)
By Vikas Datta
Too young to be among its founding fathers, Israeli statesman Shimon Peres, who died on September 28 did have a key role in the newly-born country’s survival and served it with distinction in both war and peace for nearly seven decades.
Apart from ensuring the most modern weapons for Israeli soldiers in the War of Independence and subsequently, a strategic alliance with France (which included a covert nuclear programme), to the accord promising lasting peace with Palestinians, his biggest achievement was his part in a most successful anti-terror operation.
When Air France Flight 139 (Tel Aviv-Paris) was hijacked in June 1976, flown first to Libya and then to Idi Amin’s Uganda, where slowly all passengers, except the Israelis, were released, Peres was Defence Minister in the Yitzhak Rabin government and right away pitched against giving in to “terrorist blackmail”.
It was Peres, with military experience (like all Israelis) but not on the front line, who eventually persuaded war hero Rabin, inclined towards negotiations, to plump for a military operation once a feasible plan was reached, as British military historian Saul David recounts in “Operation Thunderbolt — The Most Audacious Hostage Rescue Mission in History”.
The consequent Entebbe raid was not only the most successful anti-terror operation ever seen, but also the most complicated, involving a 4,000 km-long journey through and into hostile territory. But the rescue team brought back all the over 100 hostages safely, save three, at the cost of just two casualties (one fatal and one permanent disability).
Operation Thunderbolt (later renamed Yonatan after team leader, Lt. Col. Yonatan Netanyahu — the elder brother of current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — and the only soldier killed in the mission), also influenced most countries to eschew negotiations with terrorists in such cases and may have helped to curb the incidence of hijackings which had become an epidemic in the 1970s.
A considerable amount of the credit must belong to Peres.
As David’s book tells us, Rabin had narrowly defeated Peres in the leadership contest in 1974 when Golda Meir stepped down, but was forced to name him Defence Minister “with a heavy heart”, deeming him unsuitable for the post, “since he had never fought in the IDF and his expertise in arms purchasing did not make up for that lack of experience”. He always suspected Rabin of trying to undermine his leadership, which did not make for a very comfortable relationship.
Even when the Israeli cabinet met to discuss the terrorists’ demands, Peres was first to speak with “impassioned address on the implications of capitulation to terrorist blackmail” but was cut short by Rabin contemptuously, who adjourned the meeting so they think over the matter “before the defence minister sermonises any further”.
Peres however persisted with his plans, telling the generals “to continue raising new ideas and checking them out — no matter how weird or crazy they sounded” (Peres’ “Battling for Peace: a Memoir”, 1995). And finally, Operation Thunderbolt came up.
But, Rabin and Peres, no matter how much of a prickly relationship they may have had, also worked in tandem in an attempt to bring lasting peace to the Middle East. Defeated again by Rabin in a leadership contest in 1992, Peres became his Foreign Minister and fully participated in the negotiations that led to the Oslo Accords with the PLO. Rabin, Peres and Yasser Arafat subsequently received the Nobel Peace Prize.
After Rabin was assassinated by a right-wing Israeli in 1995, Peres kept on with peace drive but it was tough to step into the shoes of the charismatic Rabin, while the terror attacks by Palestinians opposed to negotiations created havoc, and led to his party’s defeat in the 1996 elections. Despite all the negotiations subsequently, the peace process never recovered its initial momentum – and optimism.
While Peres would continue in public service till 2014 (as president from 2007), little in its last two decades matched these contributions.
(Vikas Datta can be contacted at email@example.com)