On May 13, 1969 Sgt. Benjamin Netanyahu made his way west through the marshlands of northwestern Sinai. He was seated in an armored half-track. Night had just fallen and the future prime minister would soon be in a battle for his life in the warm, tidal waters of the Suez Canal.
Speaking before a joint session of Congress in 2011, Netanyahu made a terse and uncharacteristic mention of that evening. “I remember what it was like before we had peace,” he told the ardently hospitable crowd. “I was nearly killed in a firefight inside the Suez Canal. I mean that literally.”
Israel’s prime minister, who was inducted into the army two months after the end of the Six-Day War and returned from MIT to fight in the Yom Kippur War, was twice wounded in battle but has never been closer to death than on that night, 43 years ago. It is hard to say that it shaped him as a leader, or made him into the man he is today. But surely his prolonged fight in those dark waters, struggling with an impossibly heavy pack and a life vest that wouldn’t inflate, as he got passed from hand to hand and was brought to the surface only to be lost again amid the deadly fire and the bedlam of an ambush, brought to the fore qualities he already possessed – fierce determination and uncommon strength. Those, along with the devotion of his friends, are what stood between him and a watery grave.
Time has weathered and eroded the memories of the men who saved him. The details of the mission do not always match up. There are holes and contradictions within their stories. Some, for instance, remember the long retreat, in the face of the dawning day and the certain artillery fire that would follow, as spread out and disorderly, much “like Napoleon’s army leaving Russia.” Others say they rode back in the half-tracks. But all have a clear memory of that awful moment when the Egyptians lit up the night with machine gun fire, and all remember the “dreadfully slow” moments that ensued during which Netanyahu nearly sank to the bottom of Ferdinand de Lesseps’ manually-dug canal.
Joining the Unit
Netanyahu left 12th grade at Cheltenham High School in Pennsylvania several days before graduation and returned to Israel in June 1967. Ben, as he was known to his American friends, wanted to one-up his older brother, Yoni, and join not just the Paratroops but Sayeret Matkal (the General Staff Reconnaissance Unit), a commando unit whose name, like God’s, was not to be spoken. The Unit, then still making a name for itself as Israel’s top outfit and forever seared into the public consciousness for the daring raid on Entebbe that cost Yoni Netanyahu his life, was at the time a Skull and Bones-type society: you had to be tapped by someone else in the unit in order to be accepted.
Netanyahu was also straight laced and uncompromising, to the point of being ‘a bit of a nerd,’ said Avi Feder, another team member.
A Jerusalemite who had served in the unit recommended Netanyahu, and Uzi Yairi, the commander at the time, interviewed him at the induction center and approved the endorsement. Five months later, in January 1968, after completing Paratrooper training with the 202nd battalion, he and 19 other men showed up in Haifa, in civilian clothes, and met their officers, Amiram Levin, a future general and deputy director of the Mossad, and Rafi Bar-Lev, the nephew of the Chief of the General Staff. They were split into two groups of 10 – to this day, Sayeret Matkal always drafts two parallel teams that train with, and compete against, one another.
The young men were given boots, uniforms and gear and then told to follow their officers. Levin, without much preamble, proceeded to hike for 120 kilometers (75 miles), mostly along a wet and stormy coastline, until they reached the gates of the unit. Netanyahu, Ronit Vered wrote in a 1997 biography, fell into a sewage ditch on the way but soldiered on.
Force and fortitude: those were the outstanding characteristics that nearly all of the men who knew him then used to describe him.
“He was incredibly motivated, really in an extraordinary way,” said Doron Salzberg, the manager of a gas station near Kibbutz Einat and one of the five remaining men from his team. “He was very strong, too, wouldn’t ever let anyone switch him when carrying the stretcher.”
Netanyahu was also straight-laced and uncompromising, to the point of being “a bit of a nerd,” said Avi Feder, another team member. Feder recalled a long navigation hike they did together during a particularly hot day in the desert. Toward the end, they reached a water tank filled with dozens of gallons of water. Netanyahu initially refused to drink, Feder said, because he believed the water was meant for the other team even though there was more than enough for everyone.
For Netanyahu, as someone who had spent his formative high school years in the US and as the son of a man who served as secretary to the father of Revisionist Zionism, Ze’ev Jabotinsky, integration into the unit, which was redolent with a kibbutz ethos, was not smooth. “I remember the look on his face, the way he went pale, when I told him what I thought about the Vietnam War,” said another team member, Michael Kovner, a leading Israeli artist and son of Abba Kovner, a poet, socialist, and partisan leader during WWII. “As far as I was concerned, the Vietcong were freedom fighters and the Americans were occupiers,” said Kovner, who was raised in Kibbutz Ein Hahoresh. Netanyahu, Kovner said, told him that he “had met” people who opposed the war in Vietnam but never anyone who actually rooted for the other side.
In March, just two months after entering the unit, two of the men in the team, Zohar Linik and David Ben-Chamo, were killed during a training accident. Netanyahu held Ben-Chamo in the back of a command car as Levin sped to the hospital. “He died in my arms,” Netanyahu said earlier this year during his Memorial Day speech.
Several months after that, in September, Levin’s jeep rolled over a mine; he suffered third degree burns on his face. Alone in the field, it took him nine hours to crawl to help.
In December 1968, the team took part in one of the IDF’s more bizarre missions: in response to several Palestinian attacks against El Al planes and passengers, a group of Paratroopers and commandos, in dress uniforms and with red berets on their heads, were airlifted to Beirut’s international airport, where they removed passengers from 14 Arab-owned civilian airplanes and blew up the planes.
Still, by May 1969, they had yet to face enemy fire.
On May 11, 1969, several dozen soldiers from the unit headed out from Baluza, in the Israeli-controlled Sinai near the Mediterranean Sea, to the Suez Canal. They crossed at night and waited in ambush for Egyptian troops. The War of Attrition was in full swing. The Israeli and the Egyptian armies faced each other on either side of the canal and each side sought to extract a price, in blood and psychological damage, from the other. Deadly artillery from the Egyptians was the norm. Israeli air attacks deep in Egypt were common. Egyptian commandos laid ambushes along the Israeli road that connected the frail and distant strongholds; Israelis responded in kind.
The troops waited for an Egyptian army vehicle, opened fire, killed the men inside, hurried back across the water and were home well before first light.
The army top brass were so pleased with the results, they decided to do it again.
After a day of rest and organization, several dozen soldiers from Sayeret Matkal and seven frogmen from the Naval Commandos left Baluza as evening thickened into darkness. There was no moon during the early hours of the night. They made their way to the canal on armored half-tracks.
The soldiers gathered on the eastern bank of the canal, near al-Tina, and lay down on their stomachs as the frogmen began to work. Three of them each tied a thin parachute cord around their waists and slipped into the water. On the other side they probed the ground for mines and then scrambled up the bank and watched for enemy movement. Satisfied that there was none, they screwed an anchor deep into the dirt and pulled the cord taut. Slowly and silently, without so much as the dip of a paddle, the thin cord would pull Netanyahu and his mates across the water.
The mission commander positioned three heavy machine gun squads on the east bank of the canal. One each to the north and south, to cut off possible reinforcement troops, and one opposite the crossing point. Then the 24 Sayeret Matkal soldiers and three Naval Commandos walked the already inflated rafts down a cobblestone ramp and into the water.
Israel Asaf, later the deputy commander of the Naval Commandos, was the captain of Netanyahu’s boat. He fed the cord through a metal contraption at the helm of the raft and then through a wheel under his seat in the back. By peddling, the wheel spun and the boat glided across the water.
Amos Danieli, a member of Bar-Lev’s team, said that for the duration of the 180-meter crossing he “felt like a duck,” utterly susceptible to whatever the night might hold.
There were three boats in total, with the middle boat in the lead. Netanyahu, seated second from the helm on the right side of the southernmost raft, alongside Doron Salzberg, carried a leaden crate of 7.62 ammunition and the brutal but unwieldy Belgian FN MAG machine gun, generally assigned to the strongest and most committed members of a platoon.
Slowly they moved across the water. Danieli and Salzberg, 43 years later, were still visibly impressed with the discipline and capabilities of the Egyptian troops. “There were all kinds of stories after ’67, about boots being left in the sand and that kind of thing, but from what I saw they were very skilled soldiers,” said Danieli.
The Egyptians soldiers, who Salzberg said received a commendation for their efforts that night, waited until the Israeli boats were at the western edge of their killing zone – far from the Israeli shore and still under the gaze of their guns.
When the lead boat was 30 meters away, the Egyptians opened fire with long hard blasts of machine gun and anti-tank fire. In the lead boat, one of the best soldiers in the unit, Chaim Ben-Yona, a member of Bar-Lev’s team who had recently returned from officer’s school, was shot in the head. The impact was so forceful that it catapulted him out of the boat and into the water. Without so much as a noise, he was gone. One soldier later testified to having seen a flash of his boots as he went over. (Frogmen searched for his body throughout the night and into the day. Several days later the Egyptians found and returned his remains.)
In Asaf’s boat, the one ferrying Netanyahu, the soldiers instinctively rushed toward the back of the boat, away from the oncoming fire. Slowly the nose of the boat rose into the air until all eight soldiers were dropped into the water.
Netanyahu, Asaf said, made a last ditch effort to throw his machine gun on board as he went over.
As soon as the soldiers were deposited in the water, the boat righted itself. On the Israeli side, 18 heavy machine guns sprayed tracers across the water, creating what Asaf called “a river of light” some six to 10 feet above his head. The reflection lit up the black water and he immediately counted heads.
Netanyahu was in the water, nowhere near the lifeline, fighting to keep his head up. He was trapped by his pack, expiring under the weight of it. ‘For us soldiers in the unit,’ Danieli clarified, ‘ditching equipment into the water was the type of offense you’d be killed before doing’
“One, two, three, four, five, six, seven,” he showed me in a café near Caesarea, punching the air with his index finger. Then he counted again, frantically, “like a mother goose” and realized he was missing one of his men. “When they are on the water, they are under my command. My responsibility,” said Asaf, who later commanded the Israeli landing at the mouth of the Awali River on the first night of the Lebanon War in 1982.
Under fire, Asaf raced to the front of the boat, lay on his stomach, and looked out at the shimmering water. He saw a dimple surrounded by a larger circle – the type of impression that a rock might leave after being tossed in a well. Grabbing the line on the side of the boat, he leaned over and plunged his arm deep into the water, above the elbow. On that first attempt he hit the bushy curls and hard head of Benjamin Netanyahu. “He had curls like Yoni’s,” Asaf recalled.
Netanyahu was motionless, dead weight. “He did not even grab my hand, which is what drowning men usually do. They cling fiercely,” Asaf said.
Asaf hooked Netanyahu’s arm to the rescue line on the side of the boat and tried to propel them back to the eastern shore, a task that was complicated by the fact that the commando on the other side had cut the cord, perhaps so that the Egyptians would not reel in the boat. From Asaf’s perspective, Netanyahu was safe.
Netanyahu’s ordeal, however, was far from over.
Asaf said that when he hooked Netanyahu’s arm through the lifeline, all eight men were hanging on to the side of the boat. The only question as far as he was concerned was how to get the untethered craft back to the eastern shore and away from the Egyptian fire.
As always in combat situations, however, the individual memories of the people who took part in the mission do not neatly fit together. Salzberg remembers jumping into the water under fire, not sliding in, and sitting on the left, not the right. He said that today he knew a Naval Commando had pulled Netanyahu out of the water by his hair, but that he had first encountered Netanyahu in the water, nowhere near the lifeline, fighting to keep his head up.
Salzberg had been carrying an anti-tank mine and other heavy equipment in his pack. He managed to dive down, struggle free of the pack which was under his life vest, inflate the vest and come up for air.
Netanyahu, though, was trapped by his pack, expiring under the weight of it. Salzberg wiggled it free, hoisted the pack out of the water, and threw it back on board. “For us soldiers in the unit, ditching equipment into the water was the type of offense you’d be killed before doing,” Danieli clarified.
Then Salzberg went back to Netanyahu and tried to inflate his vest, which only partially filled with air — and anyway, it was insufficient to float the weight they carried. “He fought the whole time to keep his head above water and was already completely spent,” Salzberg said.
Somehow, in the dark, under fire, amid the tug of the northerly currents in the canal, Salzberg, who spoke to me in short sentences and kept trying to minimize his role and end the story, lost his hold on his nearly drowned friend.
Once again, Netanyahu was left to fend for himself.
Danieli was in the lead boat. He recalls the return to the Israeli shore, without Chaim Ben-Yona and under fire throughout, as an awful ordeal. Near the very western edge of the water, just as they were preparing to jump out of the boats, he saw the still-drowning Netanyahu. “Bibi was in the water, fighting for his life. I could barely pull him out. As though he didn’t want to cooperate. He was completely depleted.”
Danieli dragged Netanyahu, who seems to have kept himself alive by sheer willpower, out of the water and onto solid ground. They crawled up the stone ramp. A few feet away was a raised dirt bulwark that would provide cover. Before they could reach it, an RPG anti-tank rocket exploded beside them, the shrapnel absorbed by the soft earth. “There was a massive boom and Bibi went flying backward,” said Danieli, a writer and real estate developer who received me in his home in a teal t-shirt and red Crocs.
At this point the stories diverge. Some recall taking the rafts with them; others say they were left behind. Salzberg, Danieli, and Kovner recall a brutal retreat through the mud swamps on the eastern shore of the canal, sinking in up to their knees with each step; Asaf and Feder remember riding home on half-tracks. Some said there was enemy fire throughout the operation, with Egyptian artillery tracking them all the way home. Others said there was but one blast in the beginning and little additional fire.
What they all agreed on, though, was that they had done nothing special in saving Netanyahu.
Kovner was on the far shore, serving as Levin’s radio operator. Clearly left-wing himself, he said that today the prime minister “sickens him.” He likened Netanyahu to the bramble in the Jotham’s parable in Judges – the least worthy of the trees, who rules over all others and burns them to the ground for showing insufficient trust. Never, he said, does he think of that night as the night the future prime minister was saved, but as the night Chaim Ben-Yona was lost.
Salzberg said that saving Netanyahu’s life was “just part of my army service” and not anything “that I think about.”
Danieli echoed that sentiment, saying that his actions were “normal” and that when the guys get together they talk about “Chaim and about the operation and not the little details.”
Asaf, originally a kibbutznik from Degania Bet, described Netanyahu’s situation when he pulled him out of the water as having “one-and-a-half feet in the grave.” Several years ago, he said he received a phone call from Netanyahu. There had been some confusion as to who initially had saved his life. Asaf called Sara Netanyahu’s brother, Matanya, whom he knew, and asked to pass on to the Netanyahus that it was he who had found Netanyahu under the water.
Soon enough, Asaf said, Netanyahu was on the other end of the line: “Your friends must be cursing you,” Netanyahu said, before thanking him and assuring him that he knew exactly who had pulled him to the surface.