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Copyright 1999 Jerusalem Post
Jerusalem Post

June 8, 1999

HEADLINE: The Lesson of the 'Dakar'

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

There are many people waiting for a chance to speak with Prime Minister - elect Ehud Barak, now tied down in coalition building. But there are two individuals who did not have to wait in line. Last week, Yona and Miriam Baumel, parents of Israeli MIA Zachary Baumel, met with the new prime minister, the man they hope will finally bring their son home after a 17-year absence.

The Baumels are no strangers to the Prime Minister's Office. They have met with all of Barak's predecessors since their son's disappearance. On Friday, the Baumels will mark the seventeenth anniversary of the battle of Sultan Yakoub, in which their son Zachary and two other soldiers, Tzvi Feldman and Yehuda Katz, went missing during a battle with Palestinian and Syrian forces.

Over the last 17 years, the families of the Sultan Yakoub MIAs have watched a vast array of other Middle Eastern hostages and prisoners return home; American hostages in Lebanon, thousands of Palestinian and Lebanese prisoners in Israeli jails, and Iraqi prisoners in Iran have all been released. The Baumels are praying that under Barak, their turn will finally come, and that the former army chief will find a way to get the Old Middle East to finally cough up their son and his comrades.

The Baumels' meeting with Barak came at an auspicious time. While the prime minister - elect was speaking with the Baumels, the Israeli media was still buzzing over the discovery of the Dakar , an Israeli submarine which mysteriously disappeared with all 69 crew members in 1968. The Dakar episode had once again highlighted the extraordinary relationship of Israelis to their soldiers - even to those who have been missing for over 30 years and who were known to have perished in the line of duty.

The immense public interest in the Dakar , a sub that went down long before most of Israel's present soldier population was born, should not go unnoticed by Barak and his colleagues, as they begin to formulate their policies for moving the peace process forward. Labor's election campaign vaunted Barak's ability to bring both unity and hope to a despairing public. It will be a daunting task to find consensus issues and positions which can rally the support of most, let alone all Israelis.

But, as the Dakar discovery clearly demonstrates , there is perhaps only one issue which can rise above the noisy fray of Israeli divisiveness - the successful return of missing or imprisoned soldiers.

Barak's mentor, the late Yitzchak Rabin appreciated this point, and sought to integrate the MIA issue into his plans for peace. In 1993, Rabin forced Yasser Arafat to return half of Baumel's army ID tag as a goodwill gesture. Arafat promised at that time that more information would be forthcoming about Israel's missing men.

But despite the promises, no such information has been forthcoming.

Barak must finish the job that Rabin began. As opposed to the larger and more complex issues in the peace process still to be resolved, resolution of MIA problem is readily attainable - with some goodwill on both sides.

Gallup polls have shown that Barak would have the support of virtually all Israelis for making this matter a precondition in future talks with the PA and the Syrians. A Barak breakthrough on this issue at the beginning of his tenure would afford him a rare opportunity to strengthen Israeli support for Oslo, and boost his own credibility.

This new government not only has the best opportunity to negotiate a deal for the MIAs, but actually may have a greater responsibility than any previous Israeli government to do so. Many of the expected members of the incoming coalition have some degree of personal relationship to the issue of the Sultan Yakoub MIAs: Ehud Barak was an officer at the battle of Sultan Yakoub; Rabbi Yehuda Amital, the leader of Meimad, the moderate religious faction inside One Israel, was Zachary Baumel's teacher at Yeshivat Har Etzion; Natan Sharansky, the head of Yisrael Ba'aliya, should be at the forefront of this issue given his history as a Prisoner of Zion; and the National Religious Party, the religious Zionist party, sponsored the hester army - yeshiva program, in which both Baumel and Katz were serving at the time of their capture.

The MIA families are right to expect and to demand that this new grouping of Israeli leaders, more than any other, ensure that when Barak's promised pull out from Lebanon is achieved, that all Israeli soldiers are brought home - including the MIAs from Sultan Yakoub.

The writer is chairman of the International Coalition for Missing Israeli Soldiers.

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