Should Israel’s Mossad risk agents to find MIAs?

In his recent interview on Channel 12, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett spoke about the heavy burdens of leadership. While everyone may offer advice and present a perspective, Bennett said it is the prime minister alone who carries the ultimate responsibility. He emphasized that decisions impacting human life can be particularly arduous, presenting as an example his approval of a “very daring operation” to ascertain information about Israel Air Force MIA Ron Arad. Since bailing out of his Phantom jet over Lebanon in 1986, Arad has been classified as missing. Many believe it was initially possible to strike a deal with Arad’s Lebanese captors, swapping the IAF navigator for Palestinian and Lebanese prisoners. But coming so soon after the then-widely perceived overly lopsided prisoner exchange with Ahmed Jibril in 1985, where three IDF soldiers captured during the First Lebanon War were swapped for 1,150 security prisoners, the government adopted a tough negotiating stance. Critics allege an opportunity was lost, Arad disappearing into the Lebanese-Syrian-Iranian cauldron never to be heard from again. 

The Channel 12 interview was not the first time Bennett publicly addressed covert activities on Arad’s behalf. Last October, at the ceremonial opening of the Knesset’s winter session, the prime minister disclosed the existence of the hitherto secret operation, announcing that “last month Mossad agents – men and women – embarked on a complex, wide-ranging and daring operation to find the remains and whereabouts of Ron Arad,” adding “that is all that can be said at the moment.”

With that, Bennett went on to stress a matter of principle: “Redeeming prisoners is a Jewish value that has become one of the holiest values of the State of Israel… It defines us and makes us unique. We will continue to act to bring our sons home from anywhere.”  At the time, Bennett’s remarks generated criticism. “Defense sources” briefed that the Mossad had failed, not providing any new information on the MIA’s fate. Others claimed that by hyping the operation, Bennett was making future such missions in Arab countries more difficult.

Although not the first prime minister to do so, there were also accusations that he was exploiting the vital work of the intelligence agencies for political gain, cloaking himself in the veil of “Mr. Security,” when there was no breakthrough warranting his Knesset statement. But these criticisms evade the more fundamental question. If the operation was as “daring” as the prime minister indicated, does the value of the mission validate the risk undertaken by the Mossad personnel involved?

Of course, there is a widely held public perception in Israel that the country owes an unbreakable moral obligation toward its soldiers, and if they are captured behind enemy lines, it is incumbent to do everything possible to bring them home. Such a spirit found expression in the massive outpouring of support for the release of Gilad Schalit. Abducted by Hamas in 2006, tens of thousands of people took part in an ongoing nationwide campaign for the soldier’s freedom. The demonstrations did not protest Hamas, which would have served no practical purpose, but were directed at the government, demanding that it pay the necessary price to expedite Schalit’s return.

Ehud Olmert, prime minister at the time of the abduction, was disparaging of the campaign, contending that it made the negotiations for Schalit’s release, difficult enough in the first place, even more so, by encouraging Hamas to stand firm in its maximalist demands in the conviction that public pressure would ultimately force the government to make even more concessions.In 2011, prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu reached an agreement in which Schalit was exchanged for 1,027 prisoners held by Israel, hundreds of them with either life or long-term sentences for direct involvement in the murder of Israelis. Netanyahu defended the deal, arguing that there was no realistic alternative to secure Schalit’s release – thereby implying that despite the risks, he would have preferred an IDF rescue operation, had the option been available.

 The dangers of such a mission are undeniable, tragically demonstrated in the 1994 failed attempt to free Nachshon Wachsman, when both hostage and special forces officer Nir Poraz lost their lives. Even the IDF’s most famous successful hostage rescue, the 1976 mission to Entebbe, demanded a price, Benjamin Netanyahu losing his brother Yonatan, who was killed commanding that operation. 

Although not his first recourse, Netanyahu’s deal for Schalit’s release received wide support. There was a general acceptance that the price paid, though high, was sustainable. And Israelis took pride in the value their country placed on the life of a single soldier. It was repeatedly said that the vastly uneven exchange, rather than showing weakness in the face of terrorist blackmail, demonstrated the strength of Israel’s collective national ethos. Voices opposing the Schalit swap were drowned out by the apparent wall-to-wall public support. Today there may be more cracks in that consensus following the involvement of some of the released security prisoners in terror attacks that have killed Israelis, but the deal still resonates favorably as Gilad Schalit was returned to his family alive. 

The case of Zechariah Baumel was very different. A tank commander who was, along with others, designated missing following the battle of Sultan Yacoub in the First Lebanon War, Baumel was brought back to Israel for burial in 2019, his return achieved through high-level diplomacy. Netanyahu leveraged his relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, successfully enlisting Russian assistance in locating Baumel’s body in Syria and facilitating its transfer to Moscow, from where it was flown home on the prime minister’s plane. Baumel’s family finally received closure after 37 years.

The Arad family deserves the same. But should the government’s efforts to advance Ron Arad’s repatriation to Israel for burial include “very daring operations” that imperil Mossad personnel? Tami Arad, married to Ron in 1982, has stated that no one should have to endanger themselves for information about Ron Arad’s whereabouts or to facilitate the return of his body, and that no terrorists in Israeli custody should be exchanged for him. In the national psyche, Tami Arad is uniquely positioned to make such a point. Bringing home IDF MIAs who, sadly, are no longer among the living, is not an objective that validates jeopardizing additional Israeli lives. Not in ending the 36-year-long Ron Arad saga. And not in dealing with the agonizing MIA cases of recent years.

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