WASHINGTON (JTA) — Nearly 35 years ago, on July 4, 1976, the streets of America were aglow. The nation was celebrating the bicentennial — the 200th anniversary of its independence. In Israel, too, the streets were radiant. Israel Defense Forces commandos had rescued some 100 hostages held captive by Palestinian terrorists at Uganda’s Entebbe Airport.
This was one of history’s most audacious raids, combining precision intelligence and operations well inside hostile territory. The 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. The raid is studied at U.S. service academies and command colleges. It deeply influenced the thinking of American commanders such as Vice Adm. William McRaven.
A veteran Navy SEAL and head of Joint Special Operations command, McRaven is a longtime 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. It was Bill McRaven who commanded the stunning raid against Osama bin Laden.
Israelis exuberantly praised the operation. We shared the pain that Americans had suffered at bin Laden’s hands. We, too, have known that pain. America’s success in ridding the world of bin Laden’s scourge was our victory, too.
Elsewhere in the Middle East, however, 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 the Gaza Strip, 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. 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.
Just as American commanders once studied Entebbe, Israeli officers will now study the raid on bin Laden. We will learn from the similarities between the two operations, but also from their differences. Israel sought to rescue the victims of terrorism, while America sought justice for past victims and security against further terrorism in the future.
Thankfully, no American troops were killed in bin Laden’s compound. But at Entebbe one Israeli soldier did fall — the commander, Yoni Netanyahu.
Yoni 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 Fourth of July in 1976. Not surprisingly, Israelis 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 defending our citizens from dangers both near and far. We share the determination to defend our democracies from those who seek to destroy them. We know that freedom is not inherently free, that it 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.”
(Michael B. Oren is Israel’s ambassador to the United States.)