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Copyright 1994 The Jerusalem Report
The Jerusalem Report

August 11, 1994

HEADLINE: A Lesson from Arafat

BYLINE: Natan Sharansky

In mid-July, I found myself surrounded by two sets of people with a long and bitter experience of captivity. I was at a small Jerusalem demonstration of former Soviet Prisoners of Zion on behalf of Israeli soldiers missing in action. With us were the families of the men, who were captured between seven and 14 years ago. In all this time, the families have received no direct information and don't even know for sure if the men are now languishing in prison or are dead.

The contrast between the two groups is stark. While in prison, we were never off the public agenda, and, at least in the Jewish world, our names were household words and our fate was part of the major politicial events of the 70s and 80s. The six Israeli soldiers - Zachary Baumel, Zvi Feldman and Yehuda Katz, MIAs since June 1982; airman Ron Arad, shot down over Lebanon in April 1983; and Rahamim Alsheikh and Yossi Fink, kidnapped by Hizballah in February 1986 - are completely ignored by world public opinion.

One feeling uniting all of us at the demonstration was that now, in the midst of the peace process, the time to get our boys back - or their bodies, if they are dead - is running out.

There are those who say the Israelis were soldiers on active service while Soviet Jews were innocent victims of an arbitrary regime, highlighting its contempt and scorn for human rights. Nevertheless, their captors have inexcusably kept their families uninformed for many years, cynically, sadistically playing with their fate. This gives all of us more than enough moral justification to be angry, to raise a fuss in order to mobilize public opinion and the leaders of the West to take action to free our prisoners and to have the bodies of the dead returned.

Tremendous efforts have indeed been made by successive Israeli governments to find the missing men, including the recent spectacular kidnapping of Sheikh Dirani from Lebanon as a means of making headway in the search for missing aircrewman Ron Arad. I am sure that if the problem could be solved by a military operation, our boys would have been in Israel long ago. Clearly it can't; what can be done is to ensure that world leaders won't be able to ignore the situation.

There was a time when the world cared about hostages in the Middle East. But they cared because they were Western hostages.

Western governments put massive pressure on the regimes holding them. When the pressure became too much for Lebanon, Syria and Iran to bear, it was Israel that was expected to deliver the goods. Whenever they wanted a Western hostage released, the West expected Israel to make a gesture by releasing a fresh batch of security prisoners.

And each time, we in turn expected that we would be part of the deal, and would at least learn the fate of our MIAs.

The last Western hostage was freed more than two years ago, but Israel is still out in the cold. The only Israeli returned was Druse soldier Samir Asad, captured in 1983 near Sidon in Lebanon; his body was sent back seven years later.

Now that we have entered the post-White-House-lawn-handshake era, it would seem only natural for there to be new hope for the families of the prisoners, and that new avenues for negotiations would open up.

But the only thing we have received during this year of peace is half of the dogtag of Zachary Baumel, missing since the 1982 battle of Sultan Yakoub, during the Lebanon War. It was delivered by Yasser Arafat to an Israeli official some months ago, but PLO officials have cynically retained the other half.

In fact, the Baumel family knew years ago that the whole dogtag was in Arafat's hands, and it is clear to our intelligence service that he has much more information than he has passed on to us.

We also wonder why Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin turned this "concession" of half a dogtag into a PR victory for Arafat, publicly stressing what an important step it was, while each time we release hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, many with long records of terror, Arafat complains that it isn't enough.

Why isn't the fate of our MIAs clearly linked to the progress of the peace negotiations? Why, just as we are playing our last card, releasing thousands of Palestinian prisoners to move the peace process forward, are we not making these releases conditional on the return of our soldiers, or at least getting information about them? The PLO certainly has such information, even if the men or their remains are in the hands of Iran or Syria, Iranian-linked Shi'ite Muslims in Lebanon, or other Palestinians.

Why - unlike in the case of Soviet Prisoners of Zion - are we not launching a huge grass-roots campaign among world Jewry against this kind of behavior? The families of the missing have become much more active in recent months, but the message being sent by our Foreign Ministry both to these families and to Jewish organizations is not to jeopardize the peace process.

Yet Arafat is doing exactly what we are not doing.

I never thought I would praise a speech of Arafat's. But I was impressed that upon his return to Gaza, after three decades, his first words were about the release of every last Palestinian prisoner. He made it clear that there can be no compromise, and that he will not allow the peace process to move forward if Israel slows down the freeing of prisoners.

The peace process is not only in Arafat's best interest, it is the only way he can survive. It is a process which turns him from the head of a terror organization into the leader of a people.

Yet he is not afraid of threatening to undermine this very process - he knows that an uncompromising position on his prisoners will only strengthen him, bringing him more international respect and support among his people, which will ultimately help him get a better bargain.

It's sad, and difficult for me to confess, but maybe we have arrived at the days when our leaders have something to learn from Arafat.

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