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Copyright 2003 Jerusalem Post
September 29

HEADLINE: A better way to bring our boys home

BYLINE:Yona Baumel

I am not impartial. As the father of an IDF soldier who has been listed as "missing in action" for over 21 years, I am not supposed to be impartial. To this day we continue to receive reports that Zecharia is alive. I know one ultimate fact: that after so many years and having been through so much we want closure, we want the truth.

Zack, along with Zvi Feldman and Yehuda Katz, are the longest presumed living soldiers listed as missing in action. There have been others during that period, including the most famous of them all, Ron Arad, but nobody competes with them for their dubious distinction.

In the course of these 21 years I have met a cross-section of the best and worst in the IDF, among Israeli leaders, Arab governments, and international figures. I have met some of the finest people who walk the face of the earth. I have been supported, inspired, encouraged, humiliated, insulted, cursed, and discouraged by people in all walks of life. When I look back I realize that some of the people with the best intentions did the most harm.

We live in a very imperfect world, and perfect solutions often don't work. For statesman and politicians to make claims that there is no limit in the effort or payment that Israel will make to return captured soldiers is counterproductive.

When going into negotiations it is essential that the other side doesn't know your ultimate position. The present system of using "volunteers" without specific skills to negotiate with the Arabs has produced disastrous results. In almost every case Israel has been lied to, cheated and ended up not only overpaying but leaving soldiers behind.

Unfortunately some of the leading negotiators are no longer with us and it would be unfair to criticize their actions. Yet we can and must learn from them. To date we have not. We must face up to the fact that Israel is not prepared to pay any price.

When the Nahal soldiers were captured in 1983 one of the mothers demanded that Jerusalem be returned in exchange for her darling son. No one took her seriously. The ultimate price paid in that case, the exchange of over 1,000 Palestinian prisoners for three Israeli soldiers, reflected the extreme weakness of the current Israeli system.

As much as possible the mechanics of returning prisoners and hostages must be insulated against both family and foreign pressure. The Arad family demanded and received advantage over the other prisoner cases.

This did not prevent them from unfairly criticizing Israeli government actions. Indeed, based on personal experience I know that the position taken by the Arads was counterproductive to achieving Ron's return. There is much fault with the IDF actions in the Arad case, but the family must take partial blame.

The IDF agreed to supply $3.5 million of a $10 million reward for information about Arad. In reaction to the public uproar and from the other families the IDF allocated $1 million for all the other missing soldiers. Simple arithmetic shows that a pilot is worth 24 times as much as a ground soldier.

I wonder why there is such silence on the part of the majority who served in the ground forces.

IN 1989, with the approval of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, I negotiated the return of the body of the Israeli Druse soldier, Samir Assad, with the PLO in Tunis. This was the only case in the past 20 years where a one-on-one exchange was made.

To this day I am on good terms with some of the Palestinians who negotiated the exchange. Coming after the extremely lopsided exchange for the Nahal soldiers it took a tremendous amount of negotiation and mutual trust to achieve. But it can be done.

Hizbullah today is not more difficult than the PLO was then. First its level of expectation must be lowered. Only then can meaningful negotiations take place.

I propose the following system: A small group such as the Intelligence Sub-Committee of the Knesset Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee be permanently empowered to decide on negotiators and negotiating policy. Negotiators should be chosen on the basis of their expertise and track record in the specific area. No one in his right mind would choose a superb pianist to perform a delicate operation. Ultimate decisions would be made by a select group in the cabinet.

At the present time the IDF feels free to keep the families in the dark: to tell them half-truths, let the cases drag on, tell them one thing to their faces and say other things behind their backs. The simple truth is that information about Zack being alive still keeps coming through.

For several years I have been campaigning to have a rabbinical court, a beit din, set up to determine if my son Zack could be declared dead. This is not as naive as it seems. I have a wealth of information that he is still alive.

For all practical purposes the IDF stopped looking for live prisoners almost from the first black day in June 1982. The families have always been assured that they were searching. I wanted to prove that Zack couldn't be declared dead.

There was and is considerable doubt in the case. Now, two years after the beit din under the IDF chief rabbi was set up, there is still no decision in sight. The soldiers who were sent off to defend the country deserve something better.

Some of the people involved in the MIA cases deserve unstinting praise for their work. Others have tried to hide their shortcomings and been interested in burying their mistakes. It is not the first time that this has happened, nor will it be the last.

The families of the Sultan Yakub MIAs are aging and growing weaker. Is it the IDF's policy to wait for the problem to solve itself?

In 1982 those MIAs were in their early twenties; now they are in the middle forties. Their friends have completed their educations, taken up responsible positions, and raised families. A generation has slipped by, and we still wait for them. At the very least their loved ones are entitled to know.

Inter-organizational jealousies, coverups and bungling have denied us even this small consolation.

The writer is the father of Zacharia Baumel, missing in action since 1982.

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