Regev Goldwasser 224.88.
(photo credit: Channel 10)
Eight years ago former OC Air Force Maj-Gen (res.) Avihu Bin-Nun became the most senior military figure to publicly express doubt that IAF navigator Ron Arad, missing in action since he parachuted into Lebanon in 1986 and was captured by the Amal militia, was still alive.
"Unfortunately, I must say I am very pessimistic about Arad being found," he told journalists. "They might not even return the body, since he was apparently abused and this would become evident if the body were returned."
Bin-Nun's statements generated strong criticism, especially from members of the Arad family."
"It was an awful thing to say," said Arad's mother, Batya. His brother Chen added: "For whom would it be good if an announcement were to come that he is dead? For my mother? For Ron himself? For his wife, Tami?"
Actually, for Tami Arad, who has remained an aguna (chained woman) since her husband went missing and cannot remarry under Jewish law, such an announcement could conceivably be of great benefit. (Although Tami Arad herself has never commented on the matter and still expresses hope her husband is alive, friends of hers have raised the issue over the years.)
Yet one can also understand the viewpoint of Arad's family, as well as those of the MIAs from the First Lebanon War's Battle of Sultan Yakub - and now the families of Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, following Der Spiegel's report over the weekend (presumably emanating from the German mediators involved in the negotiations with Hizbullah) that the Prime Minister's Office is seriously considering declaring the two reservists taken in 2006 officially dead.
This is not just a question of those families trying to maintain any slim hope that their loved ones are alive, in the face of mounting (circumstantial) evidence to the contrary.
They believe, rightly so, that as long as the possibility still exists that they are alive, or are at least officially acknowledged as such, the government and other relevant bodies will make that much more effort to determine the truth about their fates.
Indeed, one of the complaints frequently voiced by the Sultan Yakub families is that because that IDF classified them as fallen in battle despite their remains never being accounted for, the effort to resolve their status has never been pursued with nearly the emphasis it should have.
Fairly soon after the capture of Regev and Goldwasser in July 2006, reports began circulating that evidence found at the scene of the Hizbullah attack on their convoy indicated that at least one of the soldiers had been seriously wounded, perhaps fatally, in the initial assault. The failure of Hizbullah to offer any signs of life from them since then, Hassan Nasrallah's specific reference last month to holding the "remains" of soldiers, with no mention of live hostages, and an absence of reference to Goldwasser and Regev in Hizbullah's reactions to the slaying last week of its operations chief Imad Mughniyeh in Damascus, all strongly indicate that the two are no longer living.
But lacking any eyewitness ready to make that claim - in contrast to the case of the three Israeli soldiers snatched by Hizbullah in September 2000, who were officially declared dead by the IDF chaplain general in November 2001 - precedent holds that a final determination cannot be made regarding Goldwasser and Regev without the permission of their families.
And they, as noted, have good reason to not give that consent at this stage.
Even if they did, or other evidence emerged that Goldwasser and Regev were indeed dead, that would still be no guarantee that a deal to retrieve their remains would be any closer. It took more than two years after they were declared dead for the bodies of Adi Avitan, Binyamin Avraham and Omar Sawaid, taken from Mount Dov in 2000, to be returned to Israel, and that was due to their inclusion in the much criticized deal that freed Elchanan Tennenbaum in return for 430 Lebanese, Palestinian and other Arab prisoners.
This time around there is no Tennenbaum, no unquestionably live hostage, who can be thrown into the equation to add a sense of urgency into resolving the fates Goldwasser and Regev, even at considerable cost.
There is, though, a live hostage held elsewhere - Gilad Schalit - and were it officially declared that Goldwasser and Regev were deceased, there can be little doubt that any sense of urgency and priority, and almost all of the public's attention, would shift to the soldier held captive by Hamas in Gaza for over 19 months now.
That may in fact be becoming the case now, or at least close to it. Thus the Goldwasser and Regev families are right to be concerned that any change in the official status of their loved ones might drop their cause far lower in the national agenda, unless the government is ready to make a convincing case to them that the soldiers are no longer alive.
There is a bitter irony to this, as only last month, Udi Goldwasser's valiant wife, Karnit, who has dedicated herself so effectively to her husband's release, spoke frankly to the television news cameras about her desire not to end up as another bride of a missing soldier, trapped in limbo for the rest of her life, and of her preference to know the truth now rather than live a life of likely false hope.
The sad truth is that whatever the true conditions of Goldwasser and Regev, Hizbullah is indeed holding live hostages - the families of these men. They, too, deserve no less than a maximum rescue effort, which means the government is likely going to have to make a tough call, one way or the other, as soon as it can.