When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had to fill a sensitive Cabinet post recently, he turned to an old army buddy from his days in an elite commando unit.
His choice for minister of civil defense, Avi Dichter, replaced another graduate of the legendary Sayeret Matkal unit. Netanyahu’s defense minister and vice prime minister, as well as Israel’s opposition leader, also served there.
It is Israel’s most famous and secretive military unit. Among its known exploits are the 1976 rescue of hostages from an Air France plane in Uganda, a mission commanded by Netanyahu’s brother, Yonatan, who was killed there.
In building his team at a time of tensions over Iran’s nuclear program, Netanyahu appears to be relying heavily — too heavily, some say — on veterans of Sayeret Matkal.
Supporters say the unit’s prominent role reflects the intelligence, boldness and creativity of its soldiers.
Critics counter that skills honed in the military do not necessarily translate to the civilian arena and that key voices, particularly those of women, are being left out of critical decisions.
“It’s a certain fraternity that for many years has managed to place security as the central issue in the country,” said Yael Dayan, a former lawmaker and daughter of the late Moshe Dayan, the famous Israeli general and statesman. “They need a war to justify their own existence.”
In a country that worships its war heroes, the military has long been a breeding ground for Israeli leaders. The exclusive, tight-knit Sayeret Matkal unit stands out.
Lawmaker Yohanan Plesner, a graduate of the unit who still does reserve duty, said the transition was seamless.
“When you are given an enormous amount of responsibility at a very young age, it gives you the confidence to take on that responsibility at the national level,” said the 40-year-old Plesner, a rising star in the opposition Kadima Party. “There is no doubt that Israeli society appreciates those people who have risked their lives for the state.”
On Tuesday, Netanyahu attended a gathering of his former army mates in memory of a late Druse Arab commander of the unit who oversaw Netanyahu during a secret mission.
“You are my brother,” Netanyahu said of the late commander, in a statement released by his office.
Israeli daily Yediot Ahronot said the commander saved Netanyahu’s life during a clandestine operation in Syria at the end of the 1960s. A spokesman for Netanyahu did not immediately comment on the claim.
Netanyahu’s office has declined to comment about the unit.
The military’s Web site identifies Sayeret Matkal unit “the best combat unit” in the Israeli military and “one of the best special forces units in the world.”
“It performs a variety of reconnaissance and commando missions, relying on extensive training as well as the most technologically advanced equipment available,” Captain Eytan Buchman, a military spokesman, said, without elaborating.
Sayeret Matkal is primarily responsible for intelligence-gathering missions behind enemy lines, so most of its operations are classified, but the unit has also been tasked with counterterrorism and hostage rescue operations, earning it a mythical status with the public.
The 1976 operation in Uganda is among few that have been made public.
In 1972, the commandos, disguised as airline technicians, raided a hijacked Sabena airliner on the ground in Israel. Netanyahu took part in the operation. A photograph of Ehud Barak, now Israel’s defense minister, standing on the wing in white overalls as the hostages were disembarking has become part of Israeli lore.