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Copyright 2003 Haaretz
September 25

HEADLINE: Why just Ron Arad?

BYLINE: Aviv Lavie

A worldwide campaign with a $10 million reward for information on the missing Israeli navigator Ron Arad was put on hold at the last minute - apparently because of the prisoner exchange deal now being negotiated. The campaign was organized without the knowledge of the families of the other MIAs, and now, both they and the Arad family are feeling cheated

At the beginning of June 2002, the defense establishment decided to take new steps in an attempt - perhaps the last - to shed light on the fate of Ron Arad, the Israeli Air Force navigator who has been missing since 1986, when his plane went down over Lebanon. A think team was set up under a retired judge, Eliahu Vinograd, which was asked to re-examine the intelligence file that has accumulated in the past 17 years, find a possible lead that might have been overlooked, and come up with an opinion about the prospects of finding Arad alive. As was reported in the media, the team completed its work a few weeks ago, concluding that the defense establishment should continue to cling to the working assumption that Ron Arad is alive.

At the same time, it was decided to offer a reward of $10 million for information leading to the discovery of Arad's whereabouts. The reward, as the mass-circulation daily Yedioth Ahronoth reported on June 7, 2002, was the joint initiative of Arad's family and the state. The subject then disappeared from the public and media agenda. In any event, the reward was never declared officially.

It now turns out that during the past year, intense preparations were made behind the scenes to launch a worldwide campaign, within the framework of which the reward was to be declared. The activity was carried out secretly, outside the defense establishment, and involved only a handful of people. The driving force behind the complex project was attorney Eliad Shraga, chair of the Movement for Quality Government in Israel, who was until recently the lawyer of the Arad family. Working with Shraga were Ron Arad's brothers, Dudu and Chen, and Asaf Harel, a friend of Ron's from their joint period in military service. During the year, Merav Sarel was added to the team. Sarel, in the past MTV vice president for marketing and today a consultant on communications and marketing, was made responsible for the media aspects of the campaign.

The involvement of the defense establishment was manifested mainly in its readiness to put up a third of the reward money - about $3.5 million. Another third came from donations, and the final third from the family. The team labored during the past year to set up a logistics apparatus that would enable them to cope with every possible scenario after the announcement of the reward. The nerve center of the project is in the Shalom Meir Tower (Migdal Shalom) in Tel Aviv. Attorney Shraga's office is on the 19th floor of the building, and the offices of the association for Ron Arad are located on the 24th floor (though there is no sign of any kind on the door indicating the association's presence there).

By phone or Internet

To handle the responses that the team hoped would start flowing in after the declaration of the reward, a call center was established in the Shalom Meir Tower consisting of dozens of telephone positions where operators would answer calls in Hebrew, Arabic, English and Russian. The system exists and is ready to go into action at short notice. The idea is that a phone number will be publicized that can be dialed from any place in the world; the conversation will be automatically routed to Israel. Even from Iran.

In addition to the phone system, a special Internet site was constructed: www.10million.org. At the moment, the site cannot be accessed by outsiders. It is a protected zone that can be entered only with a password. Considerable effort went into the construction of the site, which is supposed to provide answers to a number of key questions: What type of information, and at what level of proof, will land the informant the reward? How can someone who transmits information be sure he will get the reward (via which bank, and so forth)? And how can the site be accessed and information be provided without leaving traces? This last item is especially important, because it is believed that any information that does come in will originate in Iran or another country, such as Syria, in which the source will be risking his life. The site has versions in several languages.

The launching of the campaign was intended to be an event on a global scale. To that end, efforts were made to recruit a large number of glittering names from a range of fields and get them to join the friends association and give interviews if needed. Among the celebrities who were approached: Hillary Clinton, Mikhail Gorbachev, the Dalai Lama, Helmut Kohl, Steven Spielberg, Barbra Streisand, Jane Fonda, Henry Kissinger, Ted Koppel, Queen Nur of Jordan, Richard Gere and Dustin Hoffman.

The launch event was to include a press conference for all the representatives of the Israeli and foreign media. The campaign was planned to be aimed primarily at Israel, the United States, France, England, Syria, Lebanon and Iran, with the focus on large Muslim and Iranian communities across Europe and in the United States. The hope was that people would not be able to ignore an amount on the scale of $10 million - which is also why the Website was given that name - and that even if information about Ron Arad's fate is in the possession of a small group of people, one of them would be sufficiently tempted by the size of the reward to take the risk of breaking his silence.

"I am convinced that this will bring the desired result and that the mystery will be solved at long last," one of those involved in the project said this week.

The work on the project was very practical in character. Simulations were conducted for possible crisis situations after the announcement. What would happen if dozens of telephone operators were poised at their posts and no one called? And, even more perturbing, what would happen if the families of the other Israelis who were missing in action (MIA) or known to be held captive blasted the campaign because of the preferential treatment Ron Arad seemed to be getting? To address this problem, it was decided that a prize of $1 million would also be offered for information about each of the other MIAs and captives. A person who is close to the subject said this week that this only heightened the problem: Who decides that one MIA is worth $1 million while another is worth $10 million?

Not in the swap

The target date for the start of the campaign was three and a half weeks ago - September 1, 2003. Everything was ready. But then, a few days before the launch, the team was instructed to put everything on hold. The source of this directive was the defense establishment, and it's a safe conjecture that it has to do with the deal that is currently in the works for a prisoner exchange. If so, the Arad family now has cause to be doubly angry: first, because of the suspension of the project and second, at the fact that Ron Arad is reportedly not included in the expected prisoner swap.

People involved in the project this week maintained total silence. Eliad Shraga: "Sorry. I can't talk about it. As the saying goes, we'll talk at six o'clock after the war." Dudu Arad: "When I can, I will react about this subject." Merav Sarel: "I am unable to say anything now. I am only ready to confirm that I am supposed to be responsible for the media aspect of the project."

Chen Arad also stated that he can't talk, but when asked why the project was suspended just at this time, replied, "Those are the right questions. Maybe you should really ask the [defense] establishment?"

I understand from what you are saying that the defense establishment ordered you to put the project on hold.

"As far as I remember, the last time I checked, I discovered that I don't take orders from the defense establishment."

Still, without its financial cooperation the campaign cannot be implemented, isn't that so?

"There are alternatives. Maybe in another few days I will be able to elaborate on that point."

`Brazen lie'

Haim Avraham, the father of missing soldier Benny Avraham, was astonished to hear about the intense activity to set the reward project in motion. When told about it this week by Haaretz, he said: "A year and a quarter ago, when the report about the prize was published, I contacted officials in the defense establishment with whom I am in touch and asked about the matter. They told me unequivocally that there had been an idea like that but it was shelved, that they were dropping the idea because they understood that they cannot offer a reward for one soldier and not for others. I know that other families made the same demand. I am stunned by what you are telling me now - they lied to me brazenly for more than a year."

Yona Baumel, the father of Zachary Baumel, who has been missing since 1982, was also taken by surprise when told about the planned reward: "At the time, when there was talk about the idea, I tried to look into it and was told explicitly that there was no such thing. It's important for me to point out that if the money comes from private sources I have nothing to say about the subject, but if the state is giving money, it has to be on an equal basis. The boys who were in the tank at Sultan Yakub [the site of the battle in June 1982] deserve the same backing from the government as pilots. The government doesn't have the right to differentiate between blood and blood."

Other parents of MIAs were also taken aback to hear about the events that had occurred without their knowledge. This week they asked the army and the defense establishment what was going on. Some of the conversations were unpleasant. According to one of the parents, the military personnel they spoke with did not deny the story and only recommended, "Don't get involved in this now, it's not the right time."

Haaretz asked the IDF Spokesperson's Office the following questions:

1. Why was the reward project, which was supposed to be launched at the beginning of this month, suspended?

2. Is the freeze on the project connected with the prisoner exchange deal that is now in the works?

3. What is the reaction of the Israel Defense Forces and the defense establishment to the contentions of the families that the project is discriminatory, and more especially to the fact that they were assured that the idea of offering the reward was shelved, even as the preparations for the campaign continued behind their backs?

The response of the IDF Spokesperson: "During the last year, the subject was studied. The moment for putting the initiative into action has yet to be determined and will be determined according to security and intelligence assessments. The families are being updated on what concerns them.

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