Hard Questions, Tough Answers: Israel in the Greater Middle East: Past and Present (July 6, 2021)


Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.

Q: July 4 marked 45 years to Israel’s dramatic Entebbe operation that rescued Israeli hostages from a plane hijacked by terrorists to the heart of Africa. What did the Entebbe mission signal the Arab world and why was this strategically important at the regional level?

A: On July 4, 1976, three Israel Air Force transport planes secretly delivered IDF commandos to Entebbe airport in Uganda, 2,500 miles from Israel. There they surprised the Palestinian and German terrorist hijackers of an Air France passenger plane and rescued the Israeli hostages and the crew (over 100 people) at a minimal cost in hostage losses. They also destroyed the Ugandan Air Force, whose planes never even took off. Then they flew freed hostages and IDF forces back to Israel, via a refueling stop in Kenya.

The world was astounded by this feat--a subject of at least two Hollywood adventure films that celebrate it as a victory over terrorism on America’s two hundredth anniversary of independence. Which it was. But that is missing the most important point.

That July 4 I was in Mauritius, a scenic Indian Ocean island-state and the site of the 1976 annual summit meeting of the Organization of African Unity. I had been sent by the Mossad, under cover of a non-Israeli identity. My mission was to follow the views and votes of Africa’s Arab leaders, from Egypt in northeast Africa to Morocco on the northwest coast of the continent, and to take the measure of the representatives of the Palestine Liberation Organization, which had observer status.

The hijacked Air France jet had been forced to land at Entebbe before the Mauritius meeting began. In Port Louis, the Mauritian capital, I watched a speech by Uganda’s outspoken leader Idi Amin, who claimed to be taking good care of his Israeli “guests”, entertained his fellow leaders with his legendary buffoonery, and flew immediately back home.

Another memorable appearance was by Sudan’s President Jaafar a-Numeiri. His military uniform was conspicuously stained with the blood of rebellious army officers whose coup attempt he had just personally helped suppress. He blamed Libya’s Moammar Qaddafi, a fellow Arab African, to the general embarrassment of the assembled leaders.

Then came July 4 and breaking news from the BBC about the Entebbe rescue. I had no means of communicating directly with Mossad headquarters in Tel Aviv. I didn’t need to. I immediately decided on my own that my mission was no longer to nose around casually. Rather, I should now aggressively solicit the reactions of the assembled Arab leaders in Mauritius to Israel’s audacious rescue operation deep in the heart of the continent.

The Arab delegations were basically having a good time enjoying their Mauritius junket. In a classy Port Louis restaurant I confronted a uniformed Egyptian general and told him about the Entebbe rescue. Remember, this was 1976, three years after the Yom Kippur War and one year before President Sadat invited himself to Jerusalem to make peace. The general, stunned, replied vehemently with a string of incorrect assertions, none of which I bothered to contest: “The Israelis can’t possibly do that. We defeated them just three years ago. What you are telling me is impossible.”


Q: Were the other Arabs in Mauritius as stunned and angry?

A: I found a senior Moroccan Foreign Ministry official sunning himself on an Indian Ocean beach. “Good for the Israelis,” he said genially. “If you know some of them, tell them ‘congratulations’”.

What a contrast! Back in 1976, Egypt believed it had won the Yom Kippur War. It also believed the sources of the Nile in Central Africa (Entebbe sits on one of them, Lake Victoria) constituted its exclusive strategic depth. Morocco, for its part, had had clandestine security relations with Israel for well over a decade. It knew Israel’s capabilities, both military and geostrategic.

Q: Yet Egypt and Israel entered into a peace process within little more than a year, in November 1977. . .

A: I believe the Entebbe operation was a significant factor in convincing Egyptian President Sadat to enter into peace talks with Israel. He understood that if Israel can operate deep in Egypt’s African hinterland, at the sources of the Nile--Egypt’s lifeblood--then it is a major regional player and Egypt had better find a way to coexist with it. That, for me, is the most profound meaning of Entebbe.

Not coincidentally, Egypt’s initial peace contacts with Israel took place in Morocco, as far from Israel as Entebbe. Also not coincidentally, the Mossad which had sent me to Mauritius managed those contacts.

One relevant footnote: Israel’s sole military casualty at Entebbe was Lt. Col. Yonatan Netanyahu. He became an instant legendary hero in Israel; the name Netanyahu became a household word. His brother Benjamin, then a little-known political wannabe employed by the Boston Consulting Group, can trace his ensuing rise to prominence in Israel--initially as a self-styled terrorism expert--to Entebbe, July 4, 1976.


Q: Fast forward to the present day: the United States is withdrawing militarily from Afghanistan and is thinning its military commitments elsewhere in the Middle East. Compared to Entebbe 1976, is this move also of regional strategic importance for Israel?

A: It could be. The US is reorienting or ‘pivoting’ to deal with the strategic threats posed by China. It no longer needs Middle East oil. It has been burned by Middle East ‘forever wars’ in Afghanistan and Iraq. Its commitment to Israel is tempered by the fact that there no longer is an ‘Arab-Israel conflict’--only the Palestinian issue and the Iran threat.

So why maintain forces in places like Somalia and, potentially, even in Iraq and Syria? Note the relatively minor mediating role Washington is playing in the current dispute between Ethiopia and Egypt. These two major African powers, both close to the US, are liable to go to war over the waters of the Blue Nile that Addis Abeba is collecting behind its new Grand Renaissance Dam. Note that King Abdullah II of Jordan will soon be the first Arab leader to meet with President Biden, fully six months into his administration, and this apparently only because the US is removing many of its forces from Qatar (too close to Iran) and rebasing them in Jordan.

There are no major surprises here. After all, the process of US strategic withdrawal from the Greater Middle East began under Obama and continued under Trump. Biden is picking up where they left off. Yet from the standpoint not only of Israel but of Sunni Arab neighbors like Egypt and Jordan and the Persian Gulf Arab countries, a lot depends on the way the Biden administration deals with Iran’s nuclear program.


Q: That puts the focus squarely on the Vienna discussions of renewing the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, the JCPOA. . .

A: The outcome in Vienna could determine the course of US-Israel-Arab relations in the years ahead. Exactly how, is difficult to predict.

For example, does it follow from a successfully renewed JCPOA US-Iran deal that Washington will withdraw further from the region? Pressure Iran to cease its aggressive proxy activities in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon? Seek to compensate Israel and the Sunni Arab states that will continue to confront Iran?

If on the other hand the JCPOA talks fail, will Washington continue to withdraw anyway? And looking ahead, can we expect genuine Israel-Gulf Arab military cooperation against Iran, or will the Saudi and UAE response be to make nice to Tehran and pay mere lip-service to Israel?

In today’s Middle East there is only one clearly discernable regional alliance: the ‘axis of resistance’ led by Iran and featuring Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza and the Houthis in Yemen. How will the rest of the region counter it, and where is Washington? There is no Middle East version of NATO.

In the geostrategic midst of all this are Syria and Lebanon, both economic basket cases at the heart of the Levant. Russia--firmly implanted militarily in Syria--is incapable of bailing them out. The US and the EU have political conditions for offering aid that neither Damascus nor Beirut can meet. Where will the US be when Lebanon, on Israel’s northern border, implodes economically and politically, driving refugees to the border with Israel as Hezbollah takes over in Beirut?


Q: Lots of questions but no answers. What’s your bottom line?

A: We could be nearing a major Middle East inflection point, one of even greater impact on the region than the strategic surprise delivered 45 years ago by the IDF’s Entebbe operation.