A note from a different era

In 1976 letter, Iran hailed Entebbe rescue, mourned death of Yoni Netanyahu

Found by curator of new exhibit at Rabin Center, missive sent by Iranian official to Mossad station chief in Tehran praises daring mission, terms PM’s older brother a martyr

Mitch Ginsburg is the former Times of Israel military correspondent.

Entebbe hostages come home, July 4, 1976. (IDF archives)
Entebbe hostages come home, July 4, 1976. (IDF archives)

Nine days after the successful Israeli hostage rescue mission in Entebbe, the Mossad station chief in Tehran received a letter from the desk of the Supreme Commander’s Staff of the Imperial Iranian Armed Forces praising the mission and extending condolences for “the loss and martyrdom” of Lt. Col. Yoni Netanyahu, the elder brother of Israel’s current prime minister.

Avner Avraham, a retired Mossad officer with a flare for languages and art, curated a soon-to-be opened exhibit about the rescue mission and collected the letter, which is dated July 13, 1976 — some three years before the Islamic revolution severed the ties between the two countries.

The document, however, will not be featured on Thursday, when the Yitzhak Rabin Center opens the exhibit to the public and to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who made his brother’s battle vest available for the display.

“We focused only on events that took place from the hijacking to the end of the rescue,” said Nurit Cohen-Levinovsky, the initiator of the exhibit and the head of educational programming at the Yitzhak Rabin Center. (A fuller article on the exhibit and its other revelations will run Thursday.)

Yoni, Bibi and Iddo Netanyahu (Courtesy Netanyahu family)
Yoni, Bibi and Iddo Netanyahu (Courtesy Netanyahu family)

The letter – written during a period of close cooperation between Israel and Iran and made public now, as the two states battle over Iran’s nuclear program – is striped with colorful language and saturated in praise.

Written to Reuven Merhav, the Mossad station chief at the time, it begins in mid-sentence. “Well planned and flash executed impetuous operation of the Antebbe [sic] Airport in Uganda, by the brave Israeli commandos, saved the lives of a number of defenseless people who had been trapped in the grab of Air route bandits, aimed at persuing [sic] their defiled and unhuman goals and ended the adventure, alerting International Terrorism to think about the grievous consequences of their unwise and cruel attempts.”

Yoni Netanyahu, in a photograph taken shortly before his death at Entebbe in 1976 (Wikipedia)
Yoni Netanyahu, in a photograph taken shortly before his death at Entebbe in 1976 (Wikipedia)

The unsigned letter continues: “Kindly convey my sincere greetings and admiration for successful accomplishmont [sic] of this valuable military and intelligence operation along with sympathies and condolences for the loss and martyrdom of the her” – here the letter is severed, perhaps cutting the word heroic – “unit commander dispatched to the scene to your respective chief.”

Yoni Netanyahu, who commanded the IDF’s elite Sayeret Matkal (General Reconnaissance Unit), was the only soldier killed in action at Entebbe. Aged 30 when he died, he was the eldest of the three Netanyahu brothers — Yoni, Benjamin and Iddo.

The congratulatory letter from Iran (Courtesy Avner Avraham)
The congratulatory letter from Iran (Courtesy Avner Avraham)

Avraham, a 28-year veteran of the Mossad, first tried his hand at curating in 2011, when he set up an in-house exhibit depicting the Mossad role in the capture of Adolf Eichmann. That display was later moved from the clandestine base to Beit Hatfusot, The Museum of the Jewish People in Tel Aviv. It was called Operation Finale.

Last year, after wondering why there was no permanent exhibit depicting the Entebbe rescue, one of the most celebrated missions in Israel’s history, he set up a display at Mossad headquarters. Skilled in the art of persuasion, he made sure to have the exhibit ready for the prime minister’s annual Rosh Hashanah toast on the Mossad campus.
“Dalia [Rabin, Yitzhak’s daughter] saw it there and that was it,” he said.

A moment later, he revised: in fact, seeing her satisfaction, he suggested to her that perhaps she would like to display the exhibit at the Yitzhak Rabin Center. And so it was.

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