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Copyright 1997 Jerusalem Post
Jersualem Post

October 9, 1997

HEADLINE: The Missing Exchange

BYLINE: Danny Eisen, Chairman, The International Coalition for Missing Israeli Soldiers

At the press conference following the return of the two Mossad agents from Jordan, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu solemnly repeated a phrase that has been at the heart of Israel's military culture since before the founding of the state: "We do not abandon our soldiers in the field."

This concept has been of enormous psychological import to the IDF-a people's army where history, cultural, and religious sensitivities have rendered even the return of bodies as a matter of immense importance. That sensitivity has not been lost on Israel's enemies who have exacted exorbitant prices in lopsided prisoner exchanges over the last five decades.

The wisdom of complying with such demands has been the subject of much debate. But one cannot deny that in these exchanges, however one-sided, Israel received something concrete in return - the return of Israelis or their remains to their families.

What has been so striking since the initiation of Oslo is that both Labor and Likud governments have been willing to release Palestian prisoners with so little to show in return. One might have thought that Israel, in exchange for the release of thousands of Palestian prisoners, would have at least received information regarding several Israeli MIA's, that Arafat had committed to disclose in 1993.

Israel has seemed incapable or uninterested in pushing Arafat to divulge the information that he claimed to have regarding three IDF soldiers who went missing in 1982 in the battle of Sultan Yakoub. The late prime minister Yitzhak Rabin had stated that despite Arafat's denials, the Palestian leader does in fact have information about the missing men.

The families of the missing men are sure that Arafat has much more than that. Yona Baumel, father of MIA Zachary, has contended that Arafat is in possession of other personal effects belonging to the MIAs which Arafat "inherited" in the safe of Abu Jihad, along with Baumel's dogtag.

Yet, despite the lack of reciprocity, Israel has again and again released Palestian prisoners as a "goodwill" gesture to "atone" for various Israeli "misdeeds." Once again, in last week's exchange, the release of prisoners was the currency that Israel had to pay for her "error," not simply to extricate Hussein from the political fallout of the affair, but to mollify Arab anger at the incident.

IF Israel has had to release Palestian prisoners to compensate for its failure last week, why then should Arafat not have to "pay" a similar price for his failures - failures that have had such dire consequences in terms of the actual loss of human life?

If Arafat has in fact been negligent or worse in combating terror, as Netanyahu has claimed. Why should the premier not follow in the king's footsteps and stipulate that the PA comply with our demands to assist in freeing our prisoners? Why, in response to Palestian violations in Oslo, has Netanyahu not forced Arafat to redress Israel's grievances by making the same gestures that Isarel has been forced to make - demanding that Arafat cooperate on the issue of Israel's missing men? For a government that has made reciprocity a corner-stone of its negotiating policy, the absence of this demand is more than curious.

What is all the more strange, is that the United States has enacted legislation which demands that Arafat pay a price for his failure to cooperate in disclosing information on Israeli MIAs, whereas Israeli legislation on the matter was defeated in 1994.

The US Congress passed the MEPFA (Middle East Peace Facilitation Act) which stipulates, among other things, that Arafat cannot receive American funds until he discloses all the information in his possession about MIA and American citizen, Zachary Baumel. This legislation was followed by another Congressional resolution which asks the president and secretary of state to formulate US policy towards any government in the Middle East taking "into consideration the level of assistance provided by the government in resolving these cases."

Should Israel be any less diligent than the US Congress in sanctioning Arafat for failing to assist in the return of our missing men? Why is it that Israeli policy in the region is not formulated taking into account "the level of assistance provided" in finding our missing men, by those who claim to be our partners in peace?

The writer is chairman of The International Coalition for Missing Israeli Soldiers, based in Jerusalem.

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