Copyright 2005 The Jerusalem Post
HEADLINE: Sultan Yakoub, 23 years after
BYLINE: URIEL HEILMAN
In the campaign to bring home Israeli MIA Zachary Baumel, American activist Stuart Ditchek says there is a golden opportunity today to push Syrian President Bashar Assad to finally resolve this longstanding and tragic mystery.
Only one thing stands in his way: the Israeli government.
Ditchek, a childhood friend of the missing soldier and now a pediatrician and founder of the Committee for the Release of Zachary Baumel, says that what makes Israel's disinterest in the issue all the more frustrating is that new information received by the family in 2003 shows that Baumel likely was alive as recently as a year and a half ago.
Baumel, along with fellow tank crewmen Yehuda Katz and Tzvi Feldman, was captured by Syrian forces during the battle of Sultan Yakoub in Lebanon on June 11, 1982. The three have been missing since.
"The real disgrace of the Sultan Yakoub case 23 years later is that a pediatrician from Brooklyn who is a friend of Zack is more of an advocate for the Sultan Yakoub boys than the prime minister of Israel," Ditchek said. "That is the real tragedy on the anniversary of Sultan Yakoub."
What's needed, Ditchek says, is a signal by the Israeli government that it is seriously interested in recovering Baumel. The Americans are ready to press the Syrians on the issue - Baumel also holds US citizenship; hence the Americans' interest - and Syria is in a singularly weak political position right now. Ariel Sharon's support would provide the necessary impetus to get the issue moving, Ditchek argues.
Instead, Ditchek says, the prime minister is concerned that if Assad makes a gesture on the MIA issue, Israel will be forced to make a concomitant gesture and reopen its negotiating track with the Syrians - something the prime minister is loath to do right now.
Frustrating matters further, Ditchek contends, the Israeli government has bungled the investigation into whether the three are actually alive - and who is holding them.
As recently as 2003, Ditchek says, Baumel's parents received a tip that their son was alive. The tip came in the form of a few torn pages from an Arabic book published in 1999 that were said to come from where Baumel was being held in Syria.
The family delivered the material to Israeli authorities, who discovered a crude code on the pages of the book, "Map of Love," that contained private information heretofore known only to Baumel and his mother, Ditchek says. That led them to conclude that Baumel himself had sent the message and was alive.
But the Israelis have since lost those pages - a blunder Ditchek says is hard to comprehend - and rather than push the Syrians on the matter instead have argued that the soldiers are dead.
Early last year, the IDF sought to declare on the basis of intelligence reports that Baumel, Katz and Feldman were all killed in action, but the High Court of Justice ruled that the army's evidence was inconclusive.
One of the primary points of dispute is the scene of a celebration in Damascus on the day of the fateful battle in 1982. During that celebration, the missing IDF soldiers appeared to have been paraded around by their Syrian captors. Israeli intelligence has concluded that those were not actually the three MIAs but Syrians disguised as IDF soldiers.
But a Time magazine reporter who witnessed the scene, along with others who were there, believes the Israelis are wrong and has signed an affidavit to that effect, which Ditchek says raises serious questions about the IDF's conclusions. Ditchek has been pushing Israel to reopen the investigation of that incident, but the Israelis have refused, he said.
As he goes around the United States lecturing to Jewish audiences about Baumel's fate, Ditchek says, people are always surprised to hear of Israel's disinterest in the case - something he says Baumel's parents take particularly hard.
"They can accept the cruelty of the Arabs," Ditchek says. "What they can't accept is the cruelty of their own government on this issue."
The time to act, Ditchek says, is now.
Most importantly, Baumel might very well be alive, subject to Syrian imprisonment just like countless Lebanese and Jordanian citizens known to have spent decades languishing in Syrian jails with no ability to communicate their existence to the outside world. And if Baumel is dead, Ditchek says, there is an urgent need to bring closure to Baumel's aging parents, even if it's in the form of their son's dead body.
The weakness of Assad's position and the White House's apparent willingness to push the Syrians on the matter make this the time to act, Ditchek contends. He cites meetings with a former US ambassador to Syria, Edward Djerejian, who he says is willing to go to Damascus and appeal to Assad to grant Baumel's release as a humanitarian gesture.
"They are aware of the new information on Zack and they are prepared to put the Syrians' feet to the fire on this issue," Ditchek says of the White House.
In the meantime, Ditchek will continue to campaign for Baumel's release and rally American Jews to the cause through his speeches and a Web site, www.ZacharyBaumel.org.
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