How Entebbe Changed Bibi

Before his brother’s death, Benjamin Netanyahu thought he would go into business or academia. Ahikam Seri / Getty Images-pool

Benjamin Netanyahu has been a fixture in public life for so long, it’s hard to imagine Israeli politics without him. But a new documentary about the death of Netanyahu’s older brother underscores the extent to which Bibi’s trajectory was not inevitable. As commander of the Israeli Army’s elite Sayeret Matkal unit in 1976, Yoni Netanyahu died rescuing Israeli hostages hijacked by Palestinian and German terrorists to Entebbe, Uganda. At the time, Bibi had been scaling the corporate knoll at the Boston Consulting Group, having graduated from MIT (he met Mitt Romney at BCG, and the two have kept in touch). He returned to Israel after the tragedy to start an antiterrorism foundation in his brother’s name, a detour that eventually led him to politics. “I thought I would be either in the academic world or the business world,” the Israeli prime minister told Newsweek in an email interview to mark the film’s release in Los Angeles this week. “My brother’s death changed my life and directed it to its present course,” he said. As for an ideological impact, Netanyahu added: “It didn’t shape my worldview. It reaffirmed it.”

The film, Follow Me: The Yoni Netanyahu Story, is an unqualified paean to Bibi’s brother. It adds little to the oft-told narrative of Entebbe, easily the gutsiest antiterrorism operation of the era. But it does reveal something new and interesting about the private lives of the Netanyahus. Drawing on home videos and interviews with family members, the film paints a portrait of an authoritarian father and his three overachieving sons. Yoni, the eldest, is clearly the admired one: he was the head of the student council, was on the dean’s list at Harvard, and through his relentless drive excelled in the Army. “Yoni was considered the protector,” says his father, Benzion Netanyahu, in the film, describing the relationship of the three boys growing up. “If there was a problem of protection, he would jump into the danger point.” When the protector died, it fell on Bibi to break the news to his father after a grueling six-hour drive from Boston to Philadelphia. “All of a sudden his face turned, and he saw me, and I think he said, ‘Bibi, what are you doing here?’” the prime minister recounts on camera in the film’s most dramatic moment. “And then his expression changed, and he understood immediately. And my mother let out a terrible scream. I’ll never forget that. It was actually worse than hearing about Yoni’s death.”

netanyahu-OVNB01-secondary Yoni Netanyahu in the 1970s. Israeli Government Press Office via Getty Images

Thirty-six years since Entebbe, some of the rescue’s key figures now lead Israel. Three veterans of the operation are members of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s cabinet, and a fourth left the government last year to become Israel’s ambassador to China. Though the film fails to draw the connection, it’s hard to watch without wondering about the impact of generation Entebbe on Israel’s policies today. The rescue exemplified all those things that the world admires about Israelis, chiefly their courage and creativity in the face of threats. The commandos traveled 2,500 miles to the Entebbe airport, killed all the hijackers, along with 45 Ugandan soldiers, and rescued 102 hostages. But the same can-do spirit has also led Israel to overreach at times. Will the effort to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons end well or mire Israel in a senseless war? In the interview, Netanyahu addressed the question by referring to his own experience in Sayeret Matkal (his younger brother, Iddo, also served in the elite unit). “It was physically challenging and mentally challenging because it demanded at once a great deal of creativity alongside internal discipline. That required the officers to think out of the box,” he said. “I think that hasn’t changed.”