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Copyright 1991 The New York Times Company
The New York Times

August 15, 1991

HEADLINE: At Last, 'Maybe He Will Come Back'

BYLINE: By CLYDE HABERMAN, Special to the New York Times


Now and again, Tami Arad said today, she catches herself just as she is about to slip into the past tense when talking about her husband, Ron.

While lapses like that are unsettling, she said, they matter little compared with the hopes and fears that collide each day over the larger question of whether there is also a future tense for Capt. Ron Arad, an Israeli Air Force pilot missing in Lebanon since October 1986.

"They tell me that now maybe something will happen, maybe he will come back," Mrs. Arad said. "But they also tell me to be careful, that this is just the first step and there may be more to come."

That seems guaranteed as the Middle East hostage problem moves along uncertainly, its solution hinging a great deal on the fate of Captain Arad and six other Israeli servicemen who have been missing in Lebanon for years.

Simple and Intricate

How the crisis will be settled -- if it is settled -- remains unclear. But the Israelis are now being seen as the key, and the rough outlines of a likely deal are considered relatively simple even if it may prove relentlessly complicated to bring them about.

A group holding Western hostages in Lebanon says it will let its captives go but only if Palestinian prisoners in Israel and Europe are set free. In turn Israel says it is ready to go along but first it wants an accounting of its missing men. It would be better that they are alive and freed, Israelis feel. But officials say that simply getting solid evidence about those men, dead or alive, would be enough for them to release some of their Arab prisoners.

A videotape would do, they said today. "There is no dearth of possibilities," said Deputy Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

An Israeli negotiating team discussed the possible settlement today in Geneva with the United Nations Secretary General, Javier Perez de Cuellar, who has become a broker between Israel and Iran and, by extension, hostage-holding groups of Shiite Muslims usually regarded as loyal to Iran.

Negotiator Is Optimistic

While there was no apparent breakthrough, the head of the Israeli delegation, Uri Lubrani, called the talks "very fruitful" and said that work would continue. It was not clear, however, if more meetings with the Secretary General were planned.

Complicating matters was a statement today by the leader of a Palestinian guerrilla faction, Ahmed Jabril, that he knows what happened to the Israelis, some of whom disappeared nine years ago. Three are alive, he said, three are missing and presumed dead, and one is confirmed dead.

Mr. Jabril, head of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, General Command, told Reuters in Damascus that the three believed to be dead were members of a tank crew -- Sgt. Zachary Baumel, Cpl. Yehuda Katz and First Sgt. Zvi Feldman -- who disappeared in a 1982 battle after Israel invaded Lebanon.

Another Palestinian group has said that it could turn over the body of Sgt. Samir Assad, a Druse soldier captured in Lebanon in 1983 and killed, the Palestinians say, in an Israeli air attack.

That leaves Pvt. Yossi Fink and Pvt. Rachamim al-Sheik, both ambushed five years ago while driving through the Israeli buffer zone in south Lebanon. And then there is Captain Arad, a navigator whose plane went down over Sidon, Lebanon, nearly five years ago.

Basis for Skepticism

Of these men, only the 33-year-old Captain Arad is generally thought to be still alive, probably in the hands of the Iranian-backed Party of God.

But Israeli officials challenged Mr. Jabril's credibility today, saying they have given up on none of the men and adding that is why they insist on a full accounting. The servicemen's families are not about to let go either, even those whose hopes seem to be slender reeds to lean on.

"We have never opened champagne and we have never started shiva," Yonah Baumel, the father of Zachary Baumel, told the Israeli newspaper Maariv. He referred to the traditional Jewish mourning period of seven days.

"We have learned how to cope with many kinds of information about the hostages and prisoners, sometimes contradictory," he said. "Now we have reached a moment of truth in which we cannot content ourselves with information. We also need proof."

That demand is shared by Tami Arad, a slender, long-haired woman of 30, who was married for four years before her husband disappeared. In a way, she acknowledges, she is fortunate compared with the other families because she had word from her husband once, in 1987.

A Father's Advice

From the Israeli authorities, and through channels she said she does not know, she received a letter and a photograph showing her husband with a new beard. "There was nothing dramatic in the letter, but he wanted to cheer me up," she said. "He's a very strong person. He said it would end soon and that I should raise our daughter well."

The daughter, Yuval, is now 6 and about to enter the first grade. "Other children sometimes say to her that her father is not coming back," Mrs. Arad said, "but she is also strong and says she doesn't care what they say. Ron will come back."

"She calls him Ron," she added. "How can she call him Papa? She doesn't know him."

Like the American relatives of hostages, Mrs. Arad and some of the other Israeli families have tried to keep their awareness of the missing men alive. A year ago, she and other relatives put together a glossy brochure on Captain Arad, with family pictures and poignant comments from Yuval and others.

Several times, her campaign has taken her to the United States, where she has found to her annoyance that the missing Israelis are little known. "Everybody knows about your hostages," she said. "Why do they not know about ours?"

A Nation of Soldiers

Bringing home the servicemen or their remains is a preoccupation in this country, where virtually everyone is a soldier or a relative of one. The faces of the missing are instantly recognizable here from newspaper photographs, and many Israelis would gladly give up hundreds of Arab prisoners to get the missing seven back.

Although Mrs. Arad has more solid reasons than relatives of the other servicemen to assume that her husband is alive, she concedes that her optimism is tempered by worry.

She has carved out a life of her own over the last five years, studying criminology and moving from quarters on an air force base to a house in Herzliya, near Tel Aviv. She receives Captain Arad's regular pay, and the military helps out in other ways, including guiding her to psychologists to help explain the problems in a possible reunion.

"I'm a person who can't live alone," she said. "But I know it will also be very difficult to live together.”

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