Israel ponders missed chance over Ron Arad

Ron Arad: captured in 1986

Ron Arad: captured in 1986

The basic facts are not new. Israel’s intelligence services have believed for some time that Ron Arad, the Israel Air Force navigator who was taken prisoner in Lebanon 23 years ago, died in captivity over a decade ago. But the new details of the failed efforts to release him were published this week, and in this there is a chilling resemblance to the current situation of Gilad Shalit.

The excerpt from journalist Ronen Bergman’s new book, Israel will do Everything, published on Sunday in Yediot Ahronot, follows a senior team of IDF intelligence officers who in 2005 reviewed all the available secret material on Mr Arad. They concluded that the navigator, whose Phantom jet crashed in Lebanon following a munitions malfunction, had died in Lebanon, probably of an illness that was not properly treated, in 1995 or 1996.

For most of the decade Mr Arad spent in captivity, he was in Iranian hands and at least four years were spent in a secret Tehran prison.

Former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, largely due to the Arad family’s wishes, decided not to accept the army’s recommendation to announce that Arad is a “dead IDF soldier whose burial place is unknown” and ordered that the military continue to regard him as alive. That is still Israel’s official policy.

Mr Arad was initially held by the Shia movement Amal, which contacted Israel with relatively modest demands, to release a small number of prisoners in exchange for him. But the then-Defence Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, stung by public criticism over a previous prisoner deal, deferred reaching a decision.

A more radical movement wrested control of the prisoner and, in 1988, he was spirited away by Iranian Revolutionary Guards operating in Lebanon.

Much of the information about Mr Arad was received over the years through the German intelligence service, the BND. At Israel’s request they tried to negotiate over Mr Arad with the Iranians and their Lebanese proxies, Hizbollah — just as senior BND officials are right now acting in Cairo as go-betweens in the Shalit case.

A number of Israeli sources have insisted that in Mr Shalit’s case, a deal could also have been made in the early days of his capture. But political considerations on the Israeli side and then arguments between various Palestinian factions bogged down the process.

According to the latest reports from Cairo, the current round of talks are once again deadlocked, despite initial optimism.

“The bottom line is that in both these cases, so much more could have been done to secure their release in the first stages of their capture,” said a former member of the IDF’s elite negotiations team. “If the politicians and generals hadn’t been so confident that they had all the answers, perhaps Arad may have still been alive and Shalit could have been home long ago. And it would have cost much less than what we will eventually have to pay.”

In repeated statements, the Shalit family has said that Israel must do everything “so that Gilad’s fate will not be like that of Ron Arad’s”.

The recent revelations seem to prove that their fears are not unfounded.

Last updated: 5:08pm, July 6 2010