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Samuel M. Katz

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Who Dares Wins

Posted: 02/27/2012 6:52 pm

Will they or won't they? That's the million-megaton question world leaders are asking. Will Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak disregard the pleas from world leaders, noted generals, and even past directors of the Mossad, and give the Israel Air Force the green light to launch the preemptive operation to destroy, cripple, or delay Iran's nuclear ambitions?

The arguments have been compelling for Israel to launch a strike, and just as convincing for it to exercise restraint and diplomacy. Both Israel's supporters and opponents on the Left and the Right (in Israel and abroad) have been using political discourse to back up their positions. But in so doing, they have left one key piece missing from the puzzle -- one that is often overlooked by everyone (from President Obama to President Ahmadinejad, and everyone in between) in their analysis of the decision-making process of Israeli leaders when it comes to Iran.

The missing piece is that both Netanyahu (right of center) and Barak (left of center) aren't your average politicians. They were both operators, commandos, men who have eliminated a sentry on a dark cold night with a silenced Uzi submachine gun in their grips. And, as players in a game of global brinksmanship that just happens to be on the brink, both men view matters of life and death through dagger-sharpened eyes that no other world leader can justly comprehend.

To the outsider, Barak and Netanyahu fit the cookie-cutter mold of statesmen: top-flight educations (Hebrew University and Stamford for Barak and MIT and Harvard for Netanyahu) and a pedigree of knuckle-scraping political careers, mastered in an indigenous landscape that is raucous and unforgiving.

Yet here is where the Israeli prime minister and defense minister are unique. Both have fought and killed for their country in their service in unrivaled special operations unit that redefined the lightning flash brutality of commando warfare. How many world leaders can say that they have killed terrorist masterminds at point-blank range on a mission inside an enemy's capital? Barak has.How many world leaders have stormed a hijacked aircraft to rescue terrified passengers? Netanyahu has. These men -- whose political philosophies can be either be applauded or vilified, depending on your point of view -- know more about life-and-death situations than any other world leader on either side of the Iranian divide.

The unit in which they both served is one of the most spectacular special operations units in military history -- Sayeret Mat'kal ("General Staff Reconnaissance Unit.").

Sayeret Mat'kal was created in 1957 as a top-secret and deniable long-range intelligence-gathering force that could collect "eye's on" information on Israel's numerous neighbors throughout the Arab world. Young soldiers permitted to volunteer for this most covert force were rogues and geniuses; they were the sons of new immigrants who spoke fluent Arabic. They were adventurers and romantics; and they were master tinkers with unique personalities and flamboyant imaginations. The unit modeled itself after Britain's World War Two romantic commando force, the Special Air Service, or SAS. Indeed, Sayeret Mat'kal, with tremendous reverence, even adopted the SAS motto of "Who Dares Wins."

Service in a unit like Sayeret Mat'kal is far more than merely a formative experience in a young man's life. The unit demands that its operators march farther, run faster, climb higher, and shoot better than anyone else they will encounter. The unit doesn't ask for supermen, just the next best thing. Everything in the unit revolves around the tzevet, or "team," a small band of operators tasked with monumental military responsibilities usually reserved for regiments. No Sayeret Mat'kal officer would ever dare tell his commander or general that a mission is beyond his team's or unit's capabilities. Officers were trained to combine audacity and accountability.

Barak was Sayeret Mat'kal's greatest success story. He was a natural in the secretive and demanding behind-enemy-lines reality of the unit. He earned the distinction of Israel's most decorated soldier (details regarding many of his citations are still classified top-secret forty years later.) He rose up the ranks to serve as the unit's commander, a process which coincided with the emergence of a bitter campaign waged against Palestinian terrorism. In May 1972, Palestinian terrorists from the notorious Black September Organization hijacked a Belgian airliner to Israel and threatened to kill all the hostages on board unless Israel released hundreds of their jailed comrades. Barak led a squad of operators masquerading as mechanics to storm the aircraft. The squad moved quickly and decisively, killing two terrorists and capturing two others. All the hostages were freed.

In April 1973, as part of Israel's response to the Munich Olympic Massacre, Barak led a force of Sayeret Mat'kal commandos who, working with the Mossad, landed in Beirut to terminate Black September's top leadership. In order to slink into the heart of the Lebanese capital, Barak wore a mini-dress, a brassiere stuffed with tissues, and a Nancy Sinatra-like blonde wig.

Barak, the career soldier, eventually served as IDF Chief of General Staff. Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, another career soldier-turned-politician-turned peacemaker, saw Barak as a protégé -- as just the mettle of a man who could finally end the Arab-Israeli impasse -- and introduced him to the "battlefield" of Israeli politics.

Netanyahu served in the unit and reached the rank of captain. He became a spokesman, and ultimately a politician, by passionately championing the voice of victims of terror after "Operation Yonatan," the July 1976 rescue of 103 Jewish and Israeli hostages held by international terrorists in Entebbe, Uganda. The raid, one of the most spectacular in history, was an astounding and inspiring success. His brother, Yonatan Netanyahu, commander of Sayeret Mat'kal and the Entebbe mission, was killed leading the raid.

It was inside the Sayeret Mat'kal pressure-cooker both Netanyahu and Barak, as young malleable conscripts, were reared. And it is as a result of this behind-enemy-lines upbringing that neither man can tell his constituents, both left and right, that a strike against Iran is simply beyond the realm of Israel's capability.

The Entebbe Raid -- that has come to symbolize Israel's quick and effective response when there is a threat to Israel or Israelis anywhere in the world -- has been referenced a lot in the debate on Iran. Many inside the Israeli decision-making hierarchy argued, back then, that Israel had to acquiesce to the terrorists' demands because the risk of launching a rescue bid to Entebbe wasn't worth the disaster of possible failure. That same argument is used today in regard to Ahmadinejad's nukes, but both Netanyahu and Barak have a unique perspective when it comes to results versus risk. Whether it's an operational warning or mere scimitar-rattling, both Netanyahu and Barak want the world -- and the Iranians -- to know that Israel cannot merely step away from a risk simply because confronting the threat appears to be insurmountable.

In the meantime the world holds its breath. There are no sure things in military planning and execution, and it is impossible to storyboard the outcome of any Israeli strike against Ahmadinejad centrifuges. Murphy's Law and the madness of the mullahs will play as much a role in the ultimate success or miscalculation of an Israeli strike as will the skill of the Israeli pilots and the power of their planning and ordnance. Yet both Netanyahu and Barak have been trained to thrive when others hold their breath. They have returned from missions accomplished when conventional wisdom said otherwise. They know different. After all, who dares wins.