Israeli MIAs should be "high priority",
Senators tell Bush

By Janine Zacharia

Sunday, March 18 2001     23 Adar 5761

WASHINGTON (March 18) - Thirty US senators have asked President George W. Bush to make securing the release of kidnapped Israelis a "high priority" in his dealings with Middle Eastern countries.

In a letter initiated by Sen. Peter Fitzgerald (R-Illinois), the senators ask Bush, when formulating his policy toward countries and entities including Syria, Lebanon, and the Palestinian Authority, to "take into account their willingness to help in securing the return" of three Israeli soldiers and an Israeli businessman captured by Hizbullah in October.

The senators also call on Bush to flex diplomatic muscle to secure information regarding the three Israeli MIAs who were captured in Lebanon in 1982, including Zachary Baumel, a US citizen.

A press release that accompanied a copy of the letter said the senators had urged Bush to take into account a country's willingness to provide information when deciding whether to provide US assistance. But the letter itself was less specific, saying readiness to provide information should be a factor in the formulation of regional policy.

The letter, sent last Thursday, also urged the administration to "continue to work closely with Israel to help bring an end to the violence, facilitating constructive negotiations when possible while continuing to firmly support Israel's security."

"The United States must send a clear signal to the nations of the Middle East that America abhors the calculated use of violence and that the American people stand by Israel - our democratic ally and closest partner in the Middle East," the letter said.

On Friday, Bush made his first phone call to Syrian President Bashar Assad. He expressed the readiness of the US administration to extend any possible effort to achieve a just and comprehensive peace in the Middle East, officials said. It was not clear whether Bush raised the issue of the Israeli hostages in the telephone call.

On Friday morning, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon met with the families of the kidnapped soldiers at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv, and told them there was no new information in the case. Some expressed disappointment and frustration afterward.

"Some of the officials have deceived us," said one of the relatives, adding that while they know that the soldiers were wounded in the October 7 raid near Mount Dov, they have not been informed of the soldiers' condition nor of the status of negotiations with Hizbullah.

Disappointed but determined, the families will meet this evening with Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer to discuss the issue and express their disappointment over Sharon's refusal to allow representatives of the families to travel with him to the US for meetings with administration officials.

Daniel Grisaro, spokesman of the Coalition for Missing Israeli Soldiers, said that when Sharon was defense minister in the Eighties, he was responsible for the release of thousands of terrorists in exchange for the return of POWs.

The families, he said, are disappointed in the way Israeli officials have dealt with the issue. Grisaro has been in touch with Ukrainian parliamentarian Eduard Gorvitz, who has visited Israel several times and has been in touch with government officials concerning the four Israelis kidnapped in October. Gorvitz, he said, has expressed willingness to assist Israel in finding information regarding their condition.

Grisaro said Gorvitz handed over to Israeli officials details that may assist in finding out about the abducted Israelis. He noted that a Russian newspaper recently ran a report quoting the wife of a Ukrainian soldier who visited her husband in Lebanon and had seen the wounded soldiers.

(Margot Dudkevitch and Itim contributed to this report.)

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