Interview

With Gen. Binyamin Peled, former commander of the Israeli Air Force

November 28 1977
Interview

With Gen. Binyamin Peled, former commander of the Israeli Air Force

November 28 1977

With Gen. Binyamin Peled, former commander of the Israeli Air Force

Interview

He always wanted to be an engineer—and next year, at 50, he will at last have the chance. But in the years between, General Binyamin Peled, who handed over command of the Israeli Air Force at the end of October, has been a fighting man. He went to war in 1948, straight out of high school, and to all intents and purposes he has been at war ever since. His finest hour in battle was the lightning strike that destroyed the Arab air forces at the start of the Six-Day War in 1967. His finest hour in peace was last year’s Entebbe rescue, which he helped to mastermind. It was about Entebbe that he talked first to Maclean’s Foreign Editor David North while on a recent visit to Canada:

Maclean’s: What is it like sitting in an airplane, knowing that the raid you planned is going on down below and that maybe somethingyou did wrong is going to cost the lives of hundreds ofpeople?

Peled: You must remember that it’s not a new experience to me. Not long before that operation, we had a full-scale war on, where much more was at stake. There were moments of tension, of course, and of anxiety and excitement. But you learn to control those and try and take what comes and make a decision.

Maclean’s: How carefully did you calculate the risks?

Peled: When one says “calculated risks,” he means that he took into account while he was thinking about it all the possible parameters of failure and success that he could possibly put down. And maybe he will forget or neglect, but if he feels that he took all the parameters into account and the final count says it’s feasible, he’s willing to take the risk . . .

Maclean’s: And you wouldn’t lie awake at night wondering if you had forgotten anything?

Peled: I would, I would. I think, like any other rational man, that nothing is perfect in this world and there are some things that you cannot control. And maybe the harshest thing is that you know beforehand that success will have many fathers, and failure will be an orphan. But you live with it. I was not too emotional about the operation itself, because I felt that even if it failed it would have been the right thing to do instead of dealing. So it had to be done in any case, under any circumstances; so anything that might go wrong was in the context of the necessity to do it. There was no question of not doing it.

Maclean’s: Was the whole operation in fact all your idea?

The decision to strike first In the Six-Day War was simply a decision of no choice

Peled: No, no, I can't say that. My partin it was to propose the feasibility of reaching out there and landing and controlling a certain area for any length of time necessary to perform any type of ground operation that would probably be carried out by the ground forces. These proposals were called for, I put them down and they met with some skepticism at the military level; but it didn’t take me too long to convince them that it was feasible and we were quite capable of doing that.

Maclean’s: Did it all go exactly as you thought it was going to go?

Peled: No. There were little things that didn’t go according to plan. One little thing: we were supposed to get some late information about some of the landing

conditions and it arrived quite late. Actually it arrived while the aircraft were taking off. And the messenger who had that information, in the form of photographs, didn’t find his way to the right place on the airfield. Everyone was bustling, and he didn’t know who was where and so this very important piece of information got to the tail aircraft and it was not distributed because the people who got it thought it was for them. They didn’t think that the others should get it.

Maclean’s: But there always comes a point where having made your plan you are at the mercy of events.

Peled: That is true. Listen, I find myself surprised every time when I speak to normal, rational people and they speak of our military operation and they look for perfection that they don’t usually practise in their own lives. Life is not perfect, even in the military. And I would say even more so because the military works under conditions where there is much less control than in business, insurance or holiday-making or film-making.

Maclean’s: Is it more important to be right

or is it more important sometimes to make a decision?

Peled: Well, I’d say, there was a certain trade-off. If you have time, if you have enough resources, if you have enough patience, I would say you should gather all possible information. But you should also realize that if you work for 100 years preparing the plan, you will never get all the information you need. So, at a certain point in your planning you must start trading off... if you wait any longer the chance of doing anything would be gone. Some people do this. I call these people activists in retroactive actions. They always know what they should have done after they didn’t do it.

Maclean’s: Do you rather like it when something crops up and vou have to extemporize? Is this how you get your kicks? Peled: This is one of the ingredients of wanting to be a leader. If everything is cut out for you, you don’t need a leader. Maclean’s: What were you before you joined the air force?

Peled: I was a high-school student... then I did one year of national service (1946) in the Jewish Settlement Police Force. We were expected to volunteer for one year’s service after finishing high school and I did. But I wanted to be an aeronautical engineer. I had all my admittance papers written out to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology because we didn’t have an aeronautical faculty in Haifa at that time. But as things were brewing up in Palestine I didn’t think that it was right to drift off to the United States. So, I enlisted in the Technion and I only had one semester until the end of’47 when everything blew up. After serving for about three months on an infantry battalion made of Technion students who took part in some operations. I heard that an air force was being set up. I really wanted to be a pilot. I went into some office of the Tel Aviv air club which was then the headquarters of the air-forceto-be. I presented myself and said I wanted to be a pilot. And they said, “Web you’re a nice guy, but we only take people who have had private flying lessons. We can’t afford to start from scratch. Why don’t you join our mechanics school?”

Maclean’s: Was the war going on at this time?

Peled: Skirmishes, shootings, incidents, it was not full-scale war. Full-scale war happened on May 15.

Maclean’s: And by that time you had had your three months training.

Peled: Yes, in March I was posted as a flight mechanic. And on May 141 was suddenly called up and told: “You pack up your things and go home, pick up some money and clothing”—we didn’t have anything and the army was not in being at the time—“and if you can borrow a pistol from your father or somebody do it. We’re going to send you down to an abandoned British airfield because we’re setting up a base there.” That was on the fourteenth. The next morning the war was on. I’m proud to

say that I was the first Israeli mechanic to paint the first Israeli emblem on the first fighting aircraft.

Maclean’s: By the time the 1967 war started, what position did you hold?

Peled: I was a wing commander, a fighter wing commander, not in headquarters, the way many people have it now.

Maclean’s: And you were involved in an incredible lightning operation which must be one of the most successful, preemptive strikes by an air force?

Peled: Well, the outcome was very successful. And I don’t know why people insist on calling it a preemptive strike. It was more of a no-choice decision. I think it is well to remember that on May 15, 1967, we

I don’t think any commander in his right mind likes to command anything

were openly threatened and former Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser made it public that this time he was going to wipe us out, and we believed it. The question arose, could we defend ourselves on the present borders? It was very hard for the Chief of Staff to give an answer but he did. He said, “I can’t.” And from then on it was obvious that we were to start and we might have a chance of surviving. If we stayed put we would have a chance of sinking. To call it a preemptive strike sounds scheming. Sure, we had contingency plans for that. But I think it was a decision of no choice. If you remember the obituaries that were running in the world press about Israel at the time, you get the feeling that the right decision was made. It then became a problem with the ground forces and they said, “Yes, we can proceed, but we have a few conditions: first, we have to have complete air superiority.” That was turned back to the air force and the air force had to say

how, when and where it could guarantee those conditions. So, we always had preconditions. It was a big gamble. Maclean’s: It was another of those occasions when you make a plan and then await events. Did you find it exhilarating?

Peled: No, I felt that this is it. If we don’t succeed on the first strike we’re going to have to pay.

Maclean’s: So, it was really quite coldblooded?

Peled: Yes, at any cost because there was no other way. And the cost was quite high. I don't think people like to examine the losses when the war is very successful. That gets pushed aside. But if you look at the losses in the raids, we did pay. We lost about 46 out of the 245 pilots we had in absolute numbers.

Maclean’s: Were there people whom you knew well among those pilots?

Peled: Well, about 12 of them I knew well. Maclean’s: Do you ever get tired of sending people who are your friends into battle and having them not come home?

Peled: Tired? No. I become sad. But you must remember that serving in an air force, you get used to losing your friends along the way. I guess you will find the same feeling in circus performers, tunnel diggers, miners, high-wire artists, builders. They lose people from time to time. It’s got to be part of your life. You develop a numbness, you know, this is your way of life. The hardest part was visiting the families right after the war.

Maclean’s: You were saying earlier that success has many fathers. I would like to turn that around and ask if the German commando raid at Mogadishu was a child of Entebbe.

Peled: No, if you look right down into it, Mogadishu was a repetition of an operation we carried out against a Sabena aircraft that was held hostage in Lod—the break-in into an aircraft in a friendly airport.

Maclean’s: Alright, but what was your reaction when you heard about Mogadishu? Peled: I was very glad, because I couldn’t understand the ease with which in previous instances—they gave five million dollars to a group of terrorists who took an aircraft and flew to Yemen—the great German people parted with their sovereignty. Maclean’s: But, of course, it isn’t just up to the country that is most involved as to whether it mounts an operation of this kind. You chose to act at Entebbefor very particular reasons. It was, if I may say so, a characteristic Israeli response. But if you are going to have regard for legalities . . .

Peled: If you have to violate another man’s property in order to do those things, is that what you mean?

Maclean’s: Yes.

Peled: Well, do you remember what the Americans did to North Africa when they had the piracy problem there? About 150 years ago? And, if you study a little bit of what happened in the Caribbean when piracy on the high seas was the norm, what

the other countries did? If you are driving me to answer a question: if it’s morally or internationally legal to violate another country’s borders in order to carry out such an operation, it really depends. If the country that hosts those terrorists is in cahoots with them, I wouldn’t have any moral restraint. If a country is helpless I may offer my help. But under no circumstances should one deal.

Maclean’s: But in a sense Mogadishu was a “first, ” was it not—the first instance where a country voluntarily allowed a foreign antiterrorist squad to operate on its soil?

Peled: I’m on the verge of trying to be a little cynical, if you don’t mind. I'm not sure that if Mogadishu had not been able to secure a promise by Western Germany for massive help in its fight with Ethiopia this permission would have been granted. It’s a harsh world.

Maclean’s: Do you think that it is desirable that this precedent should be followed? Peled: Yes. But the difference between desirable and possible depends on human nature and expediency. If people recognize that it’s a common interest not to let this terrorist game be profitable to anybody, I’d be very glad.

Maclean’s: But you don’t think it ’s going to happen?

Peled: I think we’re in for factors, some possible future places, where this will not be possible out of expediency. So, I’m not trying to delude myself that everything is going to be smooth sailing from now on. Maclean’s: It’s sometimes said that these people do this sort of thing because they are psychologically deprived and want to attract attention. Do you subscribe to this theory? Peled: Yes. I think they want to get public attention. I think they want to become a problem. They have things that they want to get. This is the basis for my assumption that these people are not insane.They are not suicide prone. That is why a no-deal policy will work.

Maclean’s: Do you think, then, that they can be deterred?

Peled: Yes.

Maclean’s: What do you think will deter them?

Peled: That when they calculate the risks of operating this way that they will come up with a certain answer every time—that they will get nothing from it.

Maclean’s: So, if what they want is publicity, in part, what do you say about the attention the world media give them?

Peled: That publicity will be positive for them only if they succeed. But if they fail every time ... the world doesn’t like failures.

Maclean’s: No. So you ’re not for putting a security blanket on news coverage?

Peled: No, I think it should be let known that if anybody tries he is going to be trapped, he is not going to succeed even if he gets caught alive.

Maclean’s: What about the problem, though, that you catch terrorists, that you jail them and then some other terrorists hi-

jack somebody else and demand they should be set free?

Peled: No deal.

Maclean’s: But do you think public opinion will take the fact that 50 or 60 hostages may die?

Peled: I don’t think the hostages will die. I think these people are not insane. If they know it’s not real, why should they kill...

Maclean’s: So, in fact, what you’re saying is that the threat is unreal.

Peled: The best way to save the hostages is “no deal!”

The best way to deal with terrorists—and to save hostages— is to say: ‘No deal!’

Maclean’s: It is the adventurous spirit, the spirit of Entebbe that wins the hearts of many people who think of Israel. There are also occasions that disappoint and one of them was the air force strike in Lebanon. A lot of people got killed. How do you feel about this? It’s your air force.

Peled: I know. Listen. Did you notice that you just pointed out the events that make us likable or adorable? All those are events of war. How come? Do you think we are a warlike people?

Maclean’s: I am afraid you may have become one.

Peled: We’re not. We’re being praised for all the wrong reasons. Look, did you ever sit down and think what is the basic policy of Israel? I must bring this out because I am glad that, as a military man, I am extolled for being an adventurous knight-errant, successful. But this is not what we should be praised for . . . At the inception of the Zionist movement immediately after Herzl said that the solution to the Jewish

problem is becoming sovereign again there was a big question of “How do we go about it?” If you look back into the recent history at the turn of the century there was a big division of opinion among the people who finally made up the Zionist movement about how to go about it. Some people like Zapotinski said that we should not be bashful, we should take it. It’s ours and we’ll take it—by force if necessary. The other part, which was the majority, led by Weizmann said, “No. We are a moral people. We have a tradition to uphold. We invented Zion, we invented Jesus. We cannot come out against that tradition. We shall do it in another way. We should set up funds to buy the land from the Arabs who want to sell. We shall work hard to get the benediction and blessing of the enlightened world. We will go to the United Nations, we’ll speak our minds, we’ll try to influence people of our rights, we shall never put up arms in order to gain our political ends.” That’s been the basic premise of Israel as a sovereign nation, never to take up arms to achieve its political aims. Maclean’s: Nevertheless.. .

Peled: Nevertheless, the things we’re being praised for is the war we make. Maclean’s: Yes. And I don’t think that that’s an accident.

Peled: Alright, now I come back to the question: from time to time we do something that seems gory. It’s not up to the standard, the high moral level of Entebbe. Why do you want to spoil it by killing 100 civilians? And it’s my air force, you say. Let me ask you a question. Which act would you prefer? Try to hurt a place where we have prior intelligence that the group that just fired the rockets is hiding—in a camp or in a house, or in an orchard. Or would you rather that we mobilized two or three divisions, took óver southern Lebanon, and started filtering the bad guys from the good guys—and we’ll have to stay there for about three months to do it.

Maclean’s: Yes, obviously you can justify it on those grounds.

Peled: I’m not justifying it. Personally, I am against using the air force on technical military errands. I call it misuse of air power. During the period between 1967 and 1973 we did a lot of it, and my biggest argument with the deputy chief of staff, who is now the defense minister, was that I said that this is misuse of air power. I, as an airman, do not advise it.

Maclean’s: So you feel the Israelis are miscast by world opinion as a warring people? Peled: Nobody extols the fact that we’ve made the country into a garden, that we are the best in the world in agriculture; that we have become a centre of science; that we have become a melting pot, a social experiment of the highest order in amalgamating people from the differences in culture of 2,000 years and making them back into one nation. Nobody mentioned that. Everybody mentions Entebbe, the Six-day War, the fact that we are professional amateur soldiers, f?