The eldest son of the Israeli professor Benzion Netanyahu, Yonatan was born in New York City and spent much of his youth in the United States, where he attended high school. After serving in the IDF during the Six-Day War of 1967, he briefly attended Harvard University before transferring to Jerusalem's Hebrew University in 1968; soon thereafter he left his studies and returned to the IDF. He joined Sayeret Matkal in the early 1970s and was awarded the Medal of Distinguished Service for his conduct in the Yom Kippur War of 1973. After his death Operation Entebbe was renamed "Operation Yonatan" in his honour.
Netanyahu's younger brother, Benjamin Netanyahu, has been Prime Minister of Israel since 2009, and also served in that office between 1996 and 1999. Both Benjamin and a third brother, Iddo Netanyahu, served in Sayeret Matkal.
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. 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. While in high school, he began contemplating his purpose in life, when he wrote in a 1963 letter, "The trouble with the youth here is that their lives are meager in content. I ought to be ready at every moment of my life to confront myself and say—'This is what I've done'."
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. 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. His father described those decisions, saying "He was dreaming of resuming his studies and planned to do so time and again. Yet he always conditioned his return to Harvard on the relaxation of the military tensions."
In 1972, he and Tuti were divorced. Netanyahu was living with his girlfriend of two years, Bruria, at the time of his death.
After graduating high school, 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.
In 1967 he considered college, but the constant threat of war made him stay in Israel: "This is my country and my homeland. It is here that I belong," he wrote. 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, he was wounded while helping rescue a fellow soldier who lay wounded deep behind enemy lines. He was decorated for valor after that war.
After being wounded, he returned to the U.S. to study at Harvard. But after a year he felt the need to return to Israel to rejoin the army. "At this time," he wrote in a letter, "I should be defending my country. Harvard is a luxury I cannot afford." He next returned to Harvard in the summer of 1973, but again gave up academic life for Israel's military.
By 1970 he was leading an anti-terrorist reconnaissance unit, Sayeret Matkal (Israeli special forces), and in the summer of 1972 was appointed as the unit's deputy commander. 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, 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.
Netanyahu was killed in action on July 4, 1976, while commanding the rescue mission during Operation Entebbe. He 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 renamed as Mivtsa Yonatan ("Operation Jonathan" in U.S.) in his honor.
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."
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." 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."
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"
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."
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!"
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."
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.
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, opened off Broadway in New York in June 2009 during the Festival of Jewish Theater and Ideas. 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.
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.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said his own "hard line against all terrorists" came as a result of the death of his brother.
Netanyahu's father commented in 1977 that Yoni would have been disappointed with the West's reactions against terrorism. "He would, I think, express great dismay and concern at the weakness and indecision displayed by some democracies toward this phenomenon," he said. "He felt that there are principles that must be upheld if civilization itself is to survive."
In 1979, the Jonathan Institute was founded by Benjamin Netanyahu 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.
The two conferences organized by the Jonathan Institute, were held in Jerusalem in July 1979 and in Washington, D.C. in June 1984. Both were attended by government officials, and attracted significant press coverage.