Israel’s recent prisoner exchange with Hezbollah has thrown uncomfortable light on Israel’s willingness, or perhaps on the political necessity, of dealing with a terrorist organization in order to bring the bodies of its soldiers home for Jewish burial. It also raises a particularly painful question. Elhanan Tenenbaum is back, but why not missing airman Ron Arad? This was a lopsided deal that has left Israelis bitterly scratching their heads. They’ve been a whole lot more scratching ever since the daily newspaper Maariv revealed that Tenenbaum’s father-in-law, Shimon Cohen, was for years the manager of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s ranch, raising yet another question about his motives for making the prisoner swap.
Arad is the one missing Israeli airman who has become a national symbol. A navigator in an Israeli F-4 Phantom shot down on October 6, 1986, he was captured by members of the Shiite militia, Amal, after bailing out of his crippled warplane over the Lebanese city of Sidon.
Israeli airmen are notoriously hard to shoot down; Arad thus became a “hot commodity” in Lebanon. Everyone wanted to take credit for his capture, or to exploit it. For Syria, he was an intelligence source. Hezbollah (then only four years old) wanted him in order to show that it was a serious group. Various Palestinian militant groups wanted him because he was a part of the hated “Zionist Army.” Iran simply wanted to use him to humiliate and “tease” Israel.
In Israel, Arad’s capture was a nightmare. Bumper stickers and billboards could be seen sporting a national slogan: “Ron Arad was born to be free.” Every meeting between Israel and foreign officials, including the U.S., addressed the possible whereabouts of Arad. That search, however, led nowhere.
The latest three-year negotiations between Hezbollah and Israel were supposed to disclose the fate of Ron Arad. Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz told the Manufacturers Association in Tel Aviv last month, “Israel is closer than ever to the possibility of obtaining real information about the fate of Ron Arad.”
In the end, however, in order to get information about its fallen soldiers in Lebanon, Israel was forced to accept Hezbollah as a partner for the ransom talks. Yet, the secret negotiations brokered by German mediator Ernst Urhlau have not produced Arad. Where is he? Sharon’s government faces a difficult dilemma that could have far-reaching implications–what price should Israel pay to negotiate the return of her kidnapped and MIA soldiers?
Israeli MIAs have always been one of most difficult issues for the IDF. “I fully understand the difficulties,” said Sharon, adding, “The counter-arguments were also strong and just. However, one cannot escape difficult decisions. This is the task of leadership, and for this it is elected. We have taken all aspects into consideration, we have seriously considered and weighed all the information, and finally we placed on the scales a decisive weight: it is called, ‘Jewish Sentiment.’”
Missing from all this is a rationale for the choice actually made. The deal was made despite the fact that Hezbollah is a terrorist organization. This non-state actor is acting as if it were a legitimate player conducting direct negotiations on behalf of its “citizens.” This could allow for the expansion of the area known, in analyst Eyal Zisser’s words, as “Hezbollahland,” a “territory in south Lebanon over which it has complete control. This territory serves as a home base both for Hezbollah’s military operations against Israel and for mobilizing support for the organization’s activities within Lebanon. The area lies outside the effective control of the Lebanese government, and even of Syria.”
We are now 18 years down the road and still Ron Arad is not free. What does this say about Israel’s negotiations with Hezbollah? It shows quite clearly that it is Hezbollah, not Israel, that is arguing from a position of diplomatic strength.
As a result, Israel has opened herself to more attempts at kidnapping and has not kept the promise it should have kept–to bring Arad home. Ariel Sharon did not rise to become the leader of Israel by speaking softly, and this is not the issue or the partner with whom to practice it. He should have shouted.
Arad’s symbolism runs deeper. This lopsided exchange has compromised Israel’s policy of regional deterrence. Now, as the next phase of negotiations is about to commence, the Sharon government must stipulate the return of Ron Arad as a non-negotiatable condition; otherwise the strength of Israel’s enemies can only increase.
–Asaf Romirowsky is a research associate at the Middle East Forum.