Aftermath: hijacking of a Lufthansa plane and the release of the Munich terrorists cause outrage in Israel

In his report on 6 September (see Document 15), Mossad chief Zamir said that he had asked his German counterpart what would happen if terrorists hijacked a Lufthansa plane – they could force the Germans to release the surviving terrorists. The German intelligence chief replied that he could not promise this would not happen. Golda Meir told this to the government on 11 September, and the possibility of requesting extradition of the three terrorists to Israel was discussed and rejected.

On 29 October these fears were realized. A Lufthansa plane on a flight from Beirut to Munich was hijacked at 8:00 a.m. by three terrorists. After refuelling in Nicosia and Zagreb, the hijackers announced their intention to fly to Munich and explode the plane, if the three terrorists involved in the attack on the Israelis were not released. In the end, the plane returned to Zagreb and circled the airport, while the hijackers demanded that the three terrorists be flown there, otherwise they would blow up the plane with all the passengers. In Israel, consultations were held with politicians and the intelligence community, summarized by Galili and Eban for the prime minister (Document 37). At this meeting and at a government meeting convened as the Ministerial Committee for Security, it was decided to urge the German government not to give in.  The government declared that “Releasing the terrorists will only add to the Munich disaster” and a telegram to this effect was sent to the ambassador in Bonn. The Bonn government met in emergency session and Ben-Horin presented it with the text, expressing absolute opposition to the release of the terrorists and saying that Israel’s response would not be reasonable and restrained, as it was after the Munich disaster. Ben-Horin reported on developments by telephone to the Foreign Ministry (Document 39). After hours of uncertainty it became clear at 15:00 p.m. that the Germans had given in, and the three terrorists were released and flown to Zagreb. After negotiations the Lufthansa plane finally took off with the three hijackers, the three released terrorists and the crew and passengers and flew to Libya.

Headline in the “Davar” newspaper on the arrival of the hijacked plane in Tripoli

The release of the terrorists aroused outrage in Israel. The media attacked West Germany fiercely, and this time did not trouble to hide analogies between Germany’s actions and its Nazi past. Organizations and institutions cancelled delegations to Germany. There was also a crisis between the government and West Germany,  among the most severe since diplomatic relations were established in 1965. The government did not disguise its anger. Eban met with the German ambassador in Israel, and expressed their views in no uncertain terms, saying: “The main result is that the three terrorists have been released, and they are now free to commit more crimes and to murder more Israelis. To some degree, it is as if the action passes a death sentence on other Israelis” (Document 40).

The next day the prime minister made a strong statement to the Knesset, which condemned the actions of the German government, and the ambassador in Bonn was called home for consultations. On 5 November the government held a discussion on the release of the Munich murderers, attended by Ben-Horin. He reported on  his contacts with representatives of the German government and reactions in Germany to the events and the severe criticism from Israel on the eve of the general elections. He said that in Germany “there are expressions of feelings of shame, incompetence and failure”. This time the ministers strongly criticized Germany and all of them referred to the link between current events and the Nazi past.  Eban described the German surprise at the severity of the reactions in Israel, and noted that though they recognize the great sensitivity there in all things related to Germany, “they don’t accept the comments that this is in some way connected to the Holocaust or Nazism”. The ministers expressed anger at the statement of the German spokesman, that “It was not Germany that caused the dispute in the Middle East”, and the comparison between this event and Israel’s willingness to release terrorists when an El Al plane was hijacked to Algeria in July 1968.

Minister Warhaftig protested that “the murder of six million Jews did have an influence on the state of affairs in the Middle East”. He even argued that the public was wondering “if there wasn’t a conspiracy here between the German authorities and the terrorists, in order to be rid swiftly of the murderers who weighed, not on the Germans’ conscience, but on their peace and quiet and on their interests”. A debate followed regarding the severity of the Israeli reaction:  should it go so far as to damage relations with Germany, or  should it preserve these relations, which were clearly in Israel’s interest.

Golda Meir did not rule out the hints of Warhaftig and others regarding a possible conspiracy. “Everything happened so fast, they didn’t even try to bargain with them. As if the helicopters were ready and waiting for the terrorists”, she said. She strongly attacked the German government and its spokesmen, and their obsequious attitude to the Arabs. However, she said: “I wouldn’t link what happened now with the Holocaust. We can’t throw this at Brandt”. She noted: “Of course it would be foolish to act in a manner that would be harmful to us, but the Germans should feel that the issue is still open, and has not been resolved”. The government issued a statement denouncing the release of the terrorists and the statements in Germany, and noted: “The ambassador’s report on the position and explanations of the government of the German Republic have not changed the government’s position, and have not dispelled the anger that was expressed in the government’s statement to the Knesset and on other occasions” (Stenogram of the meeting and the government statement in Document 43).

The harsh reaction in Israel, especially mention of the Nazi period, aroused anger in Germany, and Willy Brandt, who had been active in the anti-Nazi underground, felt personally insulted. He sent a personal message to Golda Meir, explaining that the decision by the West German and Bavarian governments to release the terrorists arose from lack of choice and the desire to prevent loss of life. It did not mean surrender to terror, and the Federal government would make every effort to fight terror relentlessly. He expressed his pain at the anti-German comments in Israel, and objected strongly to the comparison with dark periods in Germany’s history. He called for a joint effort to prevent harm to relations between the two countries (Document 44 in English and German). On 8 November the German ambassador in Israel presented this message to the prime minister. Golda Meir also took a conciliatory view. She explained that there had been no intention to insult the chancellor in statements by Israeli spokesmen, and “we know very well how to differentiate between what happened last week, and the terrible period of the Holocaust”. But he, for his part, should understand the reactions in Israel in light of the trauma of the Munich massacre (Document 45). Brandt’s message and the meeting with the ambassador gave the signal to damp down the confrontation, and gradually relations began to return to normal. In June 1973 Brandt even visited Israel.

Golda Meir welcomes Willy Brandt at Lod airport, 7 June 1973. Photograph: Moshe Milner, Government Press Office

See also: Documents 38, 41 and 42.