ron arad 88.
(photo credit: )
What a difference 20 years makes.
When Ron Arad ejected from his Phantom jet over Lebanon, the Israeli media were forbidden to report the lost plane and the captured navigator for many hours, even after the news had appeared on foreign channels. It was only late in the evening that the reports were approved for publication in Israel and details were gradually, begrudgingly released.
The IDF Spokesman's Office was much more interested in directing attention to the heroic rescue of the pilot, who was extricated holding onto the landing skids of a Cobra helicopter gunship, than to the capture of his back-seater. It was forbidden to publish Arad's name; at first he was known only by an initial, "A.," like any other IAF pilot on active duty. His name was released only months afterward. His long-suffering relatives took even longer to emerge into the limelight.
By comparison, when Cpl. Gilad Shalit was captured by Hamas almost four months ago, the media were camped out in front of his parents' Galilee home within a couple of hours. The families of Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser got the same treatment after their capture a few weeks later.
Not only was there full disclosure, but in the case of the three latest prisoners, family members, friends and others were quick to lobby the government, public opinion, Arab media and foreign powers in the interests of their loved ones' release. The fact that the fate of the two soldiers abducted by Hizbullah is still unknown was one of the main motives behind the angry protests against the government by reservists after the Lebanon war ended. The consensus seems to be that, without some serious prodding, the politicians and generals can't be trusted to do everything needed to bring back our boys.
During the first two years of Ron Arad's incarceration, there was little, if any, public criticism of the government's efforts to return him. On the contrary, there was a general feeling at the time, not so long after the prisoner exchanges following the first Lebanon war, that Israel had paid an exorbitant price for the return of its captured servicemen. This also affected the government, which didn't seem to be negotiating for Arad's release with great urgency.
He was being held by his original captors, Nabih Berri's Amal, the rival Shi'ite movement to Hizbullah, which was seen as people with whom Israel could do business. The received wisdom was that a captured soldier was so great an asset, no harm would befall him; a deal satisfactory to both sides would eventually be reached. But other, more Iranian-influenced organizations operated differently, and after they wrested control of Arad from Amal, all contact with him ceased and subsequent information on his whereabouts proved unreliable.
When Israel realized that it was losing any chance of seeing Arad alive again, all the stops were pulled out, no expense was spared, daring raids were staged to capture Shi'ites with crucial information and who could also serve as bargaining chips, and at least one Israeli agent lost his life in the efforts to locate the missing airman.
Most intelligence experts, Israeli and foreign, now fear that it is too late. The accumulated evidence points to him being spirited to Iran at an early stage. Then the trail runs cold. The working assumption is that he is still alive, for lack of any other definitive evidence.
The sense that not enough was done to secure Arad's release is not unfounded. More urgent talks with Amal in the early months might have done the trick.
But it's hard to blame the Shamir government of the day; acting too eager is a bad negotiating tactic. Arad might have become a national icon over the years, but at the time he was just another captured soldier, like hundreds before him in the various wars.
In the years since, Israel has not given up the notion of lopsided prisoner exchanges to return soldiers to their families, but neither does it wish to allow itself to be blackmailed every time one if its enemies succeeds in a snatch operation.
In that conflicted context, no one can blame the three families of the current prisoners from acting forcefully and campaigning incessantly in the media, often working on their own volition, without coordinating their every step with the authorities as the Arad family did in the first years of his capture. If hindsight suggests mistakes were made in the crucial first period after Arad's capture 20 years ago, they are determined to ensure similar errors are avoided this time around.