Yonatan Netanyahu

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Yonatan Netanyahu
Last known photo, taken shortly before his death leading Operation Entebbe[1]
Native name יונתן "יוני" נתניהו
Nickname(s) Yoni
Born March 13, 1946
New York City, New York, United States
Died July 4, 1976(1976-07-04) (aged 30)
Entebbe, Uganda
Allegiance  Israel
Years of service 1964–1976
Rank Lieutenant Colonel
Unit Sayeret Matkal
Awards Medal of Distinguished Service

Yonatan "Yoni" Netanyahu (Hebrew: יוֹנָתָן "יוֹנִי" נְתַנְיָהוּ; March 13, 1946 – July 4, 1976), was the American-born commander of the elite Israeli army commando unit Sayeret Matkal. He was the only Israeli soldier killed in action during Operation Entebbe in Uganda.

He was awarded the Medal of Distinguished Service for his conduct in the Yom Kippur War. His younger brother, Benjamin Netanyahu, is the current Prime Minister of Israel.


Yonatan Netanyahu was born in New York City, the eldest son of Zila (née Segal; 1912–2000) and Benzion Netanyahu (1910–2012), a professor emeritus of history at Cornell University. He was named after his paternal grandfather, rabbi Nathan Mileikowsky, and Colonel John Henry Patterson, who formerly commanded the Jewish Legion and attended his circumcision.[2] His two brothers are Benjamin and Iddo. Benjamin (nicknamed "Bibi") was elected Prime Minister of Israel in 1996, in 2009 and reelected in both 2013 and 2015. Iddo, the youngest of the three, is a radiologist and writer. All three brothers served in Sayeret Matkal.

Netanyahu attended Cheltenham High School in Wyncote, Pennsylvania, graduating in 1964 as a classmate of Baseball Hall of Fame member Reggie Jackson.[citation needed]

Netanyahu married his long-time girlfriend Tirza ("Tuti") on August 17, 1967. Shortly after their wedding, they flew to the U.S., where Yoni enrolled at Harvard University. He took classes in philosophy and mathematics, excelling in both, and was on the Dean's List at the end of his first year.[3] However, feeling restless at being away from Israel, especially with Israel skirmishing against Egypt during the War of Attrition, Yoni transferred to Jerusalem's Hebrew University in 1968. In early 1969, he left his studies and returned to the army.

In 1972, he and Tuti were divorced. Netanyahu was living with his girlfriend of two years, Bruria, at the time of his death.

Military career[edit]

Netanyahu joined the Israeli Defense Forces in 1964. He volunteered to serve in the Paratroopers Brigade, and excelled in the Officer Training Course. He was eventually given command of a paratroopers company. On June 5, 1967, during the Six Day War, his battalion fought the battle of Um Katef in Sinai, then reinforced the Golan Heights battle. During the Golan Heights battle, Yonatan received a wound to his elbow while helping rescue a fellow soldier who lay wounded deep behind enemy lines.

In the early 1970s he joined Sayeret Matkal (Israeli special forces), and in the summer of 1972 was appointed as the unit's deputy commander. During that year, he commanded a raid (Operation Crate 3) in which senior Syrian officers were captured as a bargaining chip to be later exchanged in return for captive Israeli pilots. The following year he participated in Operation Spring of Youth (Hebrew: מבצע אביב נעורים‎), in which the alleged terrorists and leadership of Black September were selectively killed by Sayeret Matkal, Shayetet-13 and the Mossad.

During the Yom Kippur War in October 1973, Netanyahu commanded a Sayeret Matkal force in the Golan Heights that killed more than 40 Syrian commandos in a battle which thwarted the Syrian commandos' raid in the Golan's heartland. During the same war, he also rescued Lieutenant Colonel Yossi Ben Hanan from Tel Shams, while Ben Hanan was lying wounded behind Syrian lines.

Following the war, Netanyahu was awarded Medal of Distinguished Service (Hebrew: עיטור המופת‎), Israel's third highest military decoration, for his rescue of Ben Hanan. Netanyahu then volunteered to serve as an armor commander, due to the heavy casualties inflicted on the Israeli Armored Corps during the war, with a disproportionate number of these in the officer ranks. Netanyahu excelled in Tank Officers course, and was given command of the Barak Armored Brigade, which had been shattered during the war. Netanyahu turned his brigade into the leading military unit in the Golan Heights.

In June 1975, Netanyahu left the Armored Corps and returned to Sayeret Matkal as unit commander. He was killed in action on July 4, 1976, while commanding an assault unit in Operation Entebbe, his first major operation since returning to the unit. Netanyahu was the only Israeli soldier killed during the raid (along with three hostages, all of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine members, and dozens of Ugandan soldiers). Netanyahu was shot outside the building being stormed, and would soon die in the arms of Efraim Sneh, commander of the mission's medical unit. The operation itself was considered a success by Israel, and was re-named as Mivtsa Yonatan (Operation Yonatan) in honor of Netanyahu.

Netanyahu was buried in Jerusalem's Military Cemetery at Mount Herzl on July 6 following a military funeral attended by enormous crowds and top-ranking officials. Shimon Peres, then Defense Minister, said during the eulogy that "a bullet had torn the young heart of one of Israel's finest sons, one of its most courageous warriors, one of its most promising commanders – the magnificent Yonatan Netanyahu."[citation needed]

Personal letters[edit]

In 1980 many of Netanyahu's personal letters were published. Author Herman Wouk describes them as a "remarkable work of literature, possibly one of the great documents of our time."[4] Many of his letters were written hurriedly under trying conditions in the field, but according to a review in the New York Times, give a "convincing portrayal of a talented, sensitive man of our times who might have excelled at many things yet chose clearsightedly to devote himself to the practice and mastery of the art of war, not because he liked to kill or wanted to, but because he knew that, as always in human history, good is no match for evil without the power to physically defend itself."[5]

Letter to his parents, March 6, 1969:

"In another week I'll be 23. On me, on us, the young men of Israel, rests the duty of keeping our country safe. This is a heavy responsibility, which matures us early... I do not regret what I have done and what I'm about to do. I'm convinced that what I am doing is right. I believe in myself, in my country and in my future"[4]:121

Letter to his brother Benjamin, December 2, 1973:

"We're preparing for war, and it's hard to know what to expect. What I'm positive of is that there will be a next round, and others after that. But I would rather opt for living here in continual battle than for becoming part of the wandering Jewish people. Any compromise will simply hasten the end. As I don't intend to tell my grandchildren about the Jewish State in the twentieth century as a mere brief and transient episode in thousands of years of wandering, I intend to hold on here with all my might."[4]:230

Letter to his parents, April 13, 1974:

"I have no real girl friend at the moment. My last romance is over, and as I don't have time to run around anyway, it looks as if I'll remain on my own for the time being. . . On the whole, I've nothing to complain of. I'm up to my neck in my army work, and during leaves I move about a lot in our lovely land.
The whole world marvels at the Inca and Aztec civilizations and such—and they do indeed deserve admiration. Nevertheless almost all of these came into being after the start of the Christian Era (not that this detracts from their value), whereas here it seems that the cradle of world civilization is all around us, everything dating back thousands and thousands of years. A few Saturdays ago I visited the Biblical Gibeon, and saw the remarkable ancient pool there (I'll take you to see it when you come). It's this pool that's mentioned in II Samuel in connection with Abner ben Ner and Joab ben Zeruiah, who 'met together by the pool of Gibeon' and let 'the young men arise and play before them.' And the country is all like that!"[4]:238

Letter to his girlfriend Bruria, Dec., 1974:

"I told you that I had lost my innocence and my blind faith in the eternity of love. And that's a pity—truly a pity, because I want to believe in it with my whole being. If I'm skeptical, it's not about now, but about the distant future. We are separated for too long at a time for us to be bound together forever. There's something hopeless and very sad about this feeling. You asked me about a child, and I said what I did because I'm not thinking that far ahead—because a child is the most wonderful creation and the final bond between a man and a woman (at least, that's how I see it, or let's say, that's how it should be and how I'd want it to be). And I'm not thinking that far ahead because I'm not convinced it's eternal. I only wish I could free myself of this doubt."[4]:252

Biographical film and play[edit]

The film Follow Me, released in May 2012, is based on Netanyahu's life story and his final mission, leading the successful rescue of Israeli hostages at Entebbe, at the cost of his life. The narration during the film uses transcripts from his personal letters and other spoken words.[6]

To Pay the Price is a play by Peter-Adrian Cohen based in part on Netanyahu's letters. The play, produced by North Carolina's Theatre Or,[7] opened off Broadway in New York in June 2009 during the Festival of Jewish Theater and Ideas.[8] The play had been scheduled to run at the New Repertory Theatre company near Boston, Massachusetts. The run was canceled by the Netanyahu family because the theater was intending to run the play as a companion piece to My Name Is Rachel Corrie.[9]


Author Herman Wouk wrote that Netanyahu was already a legend in Israel even before his death at the age of 30. Wouk wrote:

He was a taciturn philosopher-soldier of terrific endurance, a hard-fibered, charismatic young leader, a magnificent fighting man. On the Golan Heights, in the Yom Kippur War, the unit he led was part of the force that held back a sea of Soviet tanks manned by Syrians, in a celebrated stand; and after Entebbe, "Yoni" became in Israel almost a symbol of the nation itself. Today his name is spoken there with somber reverence.[4]:vii

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said his own "hard line against all terrorists" came as a result of the death of his brother.[10]

The Jonathan Institute[edit]

In 1979, the Jonathan Institute was founded by Benjamin Netanyahu and established in order to sponsor international conferences on terrorism. One of its first speakers, U.S. Senator Henry M. Jackson, then Chairman of the Armed Services Committee, who gave a talk titled "Terrorism as a Weapon in International Politics", described the purpose of the conference and its relation to Jonathan Netanyahu:

I believe that international terrorism is a modern form of warfare against liberal democracies. I believe that the ultimate but seldom stated goal of these terrorists is to destroy the very fabric of democracy... We recall the quality of his personal character, his inner devotion to the public good, his voluntary performance of the most demanding duties that the defense of democracy entails... Jonathan's heritage is an unpurchasable treasure of the spirit that moth and rust cannot consume nor thieves break through and steal.[11]

Netanyahu's gravestone (with IDF logo in the upper right corner)

The two conferences organized by the Jonathan Institute, in Jerusalem in July 1979 and in Washington, D.C. in June 1984, were major events and highly effective for Israeli and Western propaganda. Both drew in many high officials and big-name journalists and successfully attracted extensive press coverage on the threat of terrorism as portrayed in the Western model. The 1979 conference, held under heavy army and police guard, attracted some four hundred journalists. The opening session of the 1979 conference was addressed by Israeli Prime Minister Begin, who successfully urged the assembled guests to get out and sell the message. One of the participants, Claire Sterling, spelled it out in her best-selling book The Terror Network. Its themes, expounded at the conference without deviation, were presented in a booklet issued by the conference itself, titled International Terrorism.[citation needed]

The institute effectively publicized its espoused doctrine of "preemptive retaliation", the Israeli policy of killing those designated as terrorists before they can act. Then-U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz pushed this line at the conference and earlier in appearances before the Denton committee. The 1984 conference also produced a widely-reviewed book edited by Netanyahu, Terrorism: How the West Can Win.[citation needed]


  1. ^ Follow Me image gallery
  2. ^ "The Seven Lives of Colonel Patterson: how an Irish lion hunter led the Jewish Legion to victory" by Denis Brian (pub. 2008), pg. xiii
  3. ^ Hastings (1979), p. 89.
  4. ^ a b c d e f Netanyahu, Yonatan. The Letters of Jonathan Netanyahu, Gefen Publ. (1980)
  5. ^ "Words of a Fallen Soldier" New York Times, January 25, 1981.
  6. ^ "Follow Me: The Yoni Netanyahu Story", May 2012; accessed January 24, 2015.
  7. ^ "theatreor.com". theatreor.com. Retrieved September 1, 2011. 
  8. ^ Untitled Theater Co #61's Fest Of Jewish Theater & Ideas Runs 5/20-6/14 In NYC, Broadway World, May 20, 2009 [1]
  9. ^ "Under pressure, New Rep cancels play". Boston Globe. May 9, 2007. Retrieved September 1, 2011. 
  10. ^ Thomas, Gordon. Gideon's Spies: The Secret History of the Mossad, Macmillan Publishers (2009) p. 145
  11. ^ Netanyahu, Benjamin. International Terrorism: Challenge and Response, Transaction Publ. – Rutgers University (1981), p. 33


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