Remarks at Embassy of Israel's Independence Day Reception
Last Sunday evening, the phone rang at the Israeli residence. The White House wanted to speak with the ambassador. I took the call and heard the following words: “we got him.” I did not have to ask who “him” was. Intrinsically, I knew. So did my wife, Sally, who was sitting nearby. My response was confined to one word: “Alive?” I asked. The reply was also one word: “No.” And I answered with a phrase readily understandable in only two of the world’s capitals: in Washington and in Jerusalem. I said, “mazal tov.”
The brilliant operation against Osama bin Laden was widely praised in Israel. As a people, we did not have to ask who “him” was. We shared the pain that the Americans had suffered at bin Laden’s hands. We, too, have known that pain. And America’s success in ridding the world of bin Laden’s scourge was our victory as well.
Elsewhere, in the Middle East, the reaction was radically different. The Iranian regime claimed that America had exploited bin Laden as a pretext for invading Afghanistan, and had eliminated him in order to prevent him from leaking valuable intelligence. Hamas, in Gaza, condemned the operation as “another example of America’s desire to spill Arab blood,” and hailed bin Laden as a “holy warrior” and a “martyr.”
The contrast between Israel’s response to the operation and that of many of our neighbors underscores the essence of the U.S.-Israeli alliance. Yes, your enemies are our enemies. Those who seek to kill Americans, also threaten us. Your security is our security, just as our security is yours. This is as true today as it was at any time during Israel’s 63-year existence.
It was true thirty-five years ago, on July 4, 1976. That day, Israeli forces rescued more than 100 hostages held by Palestinian terrorists at Uganda’s Entebbe airport. It was one of history’s most audacious raids, combining precision intelligence and operations well inside hostile territory. Commandos had only minutes to penetrate a heavily-guarded building, complete their mission, and return safely to base.
Entebbe revolutionized the very concept of special forces operations in armies throughout the world, and especially in the U.S. military. The raid is studied at American service academies and command colleges. It deeply influenced the thinking of American commanders such as Vice Admiral William McRaven. A veteran Navy Seal and head of Joint Special Operations command, Vice Admiral McRaven is a long-time friend of Israel who visited our country many times and worked closely with our special forces. His classic book, Case Studies in Special Operations Warfare, contains an entire chapter on the Entebbe Raid. Vice Admiral Bill McRaven commanded the bin Laden operation.
Just as American officers once studied Entebbe, now Israeli officers will study the bin Laden operation. We learn from one another and inspire one another. We will learn from the similarities between the Entebbe and the bin Laden operations, but also from their differences.
Israel sought to rescue the victims of terrorism, while America sought justice for past victims and security against future terrorist acts. Fortunately, no American troops were killed in bin Laden’s compound but at Entebbe one Israeli soldier did fall—the commander, Yoni Netanyahu.
Yoni, for those of you who don’t know, was the older brother of Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. In a recent CNN interview, the Prime Minister said that Yoni’s death profoundly impacted him. I think of my brother,” he said, “I think of our children, I think of the Palestinian children. We could have a better world…a world of peace. “
The vision of a better world was in the minds of both Americans and Israelis on that July 4 in 1976. While Israelis rejoiced over the triumph at Entebbe, Americans celebrated the bicentennial, the two hundredth anniversary of their nation’s birth. Streets throughout both countries, Israel and the United States, were radiant. In Israel, people immediately associated Entebbe with the bicentennial. Cartoons appeared in the Israeli press showing a battle-soiled Israeli soldier standing beside the Statue of Liberty. Together, they held aloft the torch of freedom.
Beyond their conceptual and tactical similarities, further even than the ways both will influence future special ops, the Entebbe and bin Laden raids reveal the fundamental bonds between Israel and America.
We share the commitment to defend our citizens from dangers both near and far. We share the determination to shield our democracies from those who seek to destroy them. We know that freedom is not inherently free but comes at a cost and must always be protected, sometimes at considerable risk.
Shortly before his death, Yoni Netanyahu wrote of his belief in “the eternity of the striving for freedom and the idea of freedom in Israel.” That same belief permeates the American people. Israel and America: we stand together against common threats, we strive together for common ideals, for security and peace. Together, we uphold the Biblical injunction, “justice, justice, you shall pursue.”