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(photo credit: Channel 10 [file])
In that peculiarly Israeli twilight zone, the seam in which Remembrance Day runs into Independence Day at sundown, I attended a ceremony at my parents' synagogue in Jerusalem inaugurating a memorial to members who had fallen in active service or terror attacks. Touchingly, the monument has the names of prayer-goers from two adjacent synagogues: the Ashkenazi one where my parents are regulars and the Sephardi one next door. Death does not distinguish between the two communities and it is poignantly reassuring that, in their own way, the two synagogues have noted that our fates are one. A generation is growing up which no longer distinguishes between Ashkenazi and Sephardi. And that's how it should be. If our enemies don't recognize a difference, why should we create it?
At the ceremony many tears were shed. I, too, hugged my young son and cried, thinking of friends who had been killed - or, worse, of friends whose children had been killed.
As we made that surreal switch and prepared for festive Yom Ha'atzmaut prayers, many congregants muttered fervent wishes that no more names be added to those recorded on the cold stone wall. I nodded my agreement. And then a truly terrible thought overtook me. There was one name which I wouldn't mind seeing join that chilling list of lost lives.
Among the regular shulgoers is Yona Baumel. His son, Zachary, has been missing since the Battle of Sultan Yakoub in the first Lebanon War. It's hard to say you wish someone were dead. I don't. My own prayer - in keeping with the one expressed in synagogues throughout the country every Sabbath - is that all the prisoners of war return home safe and sound. Having them return home in coffins is a very poor second choice. But it's been 26 years since Baumel went missing. That was June 10, 1982. In June 2008, I don't wish bereavement on the family. I wish them closure.
As talk of "making peace" with Syria is raised - sounding more like a threat than a promise - my thoughts naturally turned to "The Sultan Yakoub Three": Zachary Baumel, Tzvi Feldman and Yehuda Katz. It is easy to say nobody knows their fate but that's not true. Somebody knows. And almost certainly that somebody is in Syria - and I have this dreadful feeling he's laughing at us.
Over the years, the IDF has raised the possibility that the three are dead, perhaps even killed in battle. But there has never been sufficient proof. The "boys" - now middle-aged men, if they are alive, who should be growing slightly tubby and deriving "nachas" from watching their own kids grow up - are somewhere in a private twilight zone of their own: neither alive nor dead. Their families, too, are suspended in a personal hellish limbo.
Ten years ago, the US Congress passed the Zachary Baumel Law stating that no agreements can go forward with the Palestinians or the Syrians without full disclosure of the fate of the Sultan Yakoub Three. President Bill Clinton, however, made the stipulation that it could be implemented only at the president's discretion. At the Camp David talks with then prime minister Ehud Barak in 2000, Clinton used his discretion and talks went ahead without an attempt at discovering what happened to the Israeli soldiers.
Information about the fate of Baumel (a US citizen), has never been forthcoming. As a teaser, however, Yitzhak Rabin's Oslo negotiators received part of his dog tag from Yasser Arafat.
Presidents come and go in the US; prime ministers come and go in Israel; chairmen come and go in the Palestinian Authority. Every so often, the leaders converge, discuss peace, talk of the price, and ignore the fact that among the possible goodwill gestures of which they are so fond should be a demand to release the MIAs, or at least their remains.
THE MYSTERY of Baumel's dog tag was reflected in the peculiar hand-over involving Hizbullah last week. Nearly two years after a helicopter carrying Sgt.-Maj. (res.) Ron Mashiah of Gedera was shot down over Lebanon, his dog tag was returned to his family on June 2. They plan to give it to Mashiah's son, Sa'ar, who had not been born when his father was killed. In the swap, the remains and personal belongings of four other soldiers were unexpectedly returned to Israel while Lebanese-born spy Nasim Nisr was allowed back into Lebanon having completed a six-year prison term.
Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah is another terrorist with a winner's smile. He has allowed no contact with IDF soldiers Eldad Regev and Udi (Ehud) Goldwasser since they were abducted across the border on June 26, 2006, in an incident that triggered the Second Lebanon War. But it is widely believed that the ghoulish exchange - body parts for a minor spy - was a prelude to a much bigger deal. Nasrallah is holding out for the return of unrepentant childkiller Samir Kuntar.
According to a report published in Der Spiegel OnLine, however, Regev and Goldwasser "are believed to be dead." No sign of life has been received since they disappeared from their badly burnt vehicle at Mount Dov. As part of Nasrallah's dastardly game - for he is surely playing with us - there has been no sign of death, either.
The paper described the outlines of a proposed deal, covered also in the Post: Israel would release the last four Hizbullah terrorists it has been holding, including Kuntar; hand over the remains of all other Lebanese from previous wars and provide maps marking the location of minefields in southern Lebanon. After a certain period, it would also release dozens of Palestinian prisoners. In return, Hizbullah would hand over the bodies of Goldwasser and Regev and provide information on Ron Arad, the IAF navigator missing since 1986.
This raises several obvious, painful questions: Why should Israel hand over live prisoners, and how many, for dead soldiers? How many times can Israelis be promised details about Arad, and not receive them? Why strengthen Nasrallah's position in Lebanon; ignore the MIAs in Syria; and tie the fates of the POWs with the negotiations with the Palestinians? And whether any of this will even benefit Gilad Schalit, who was abducted by Hamas two years ago this month. How about shedding some light on the case of soldier Guy Hever who disappeared near the Syrian border in 1997?
It is obviously Israel's moral obligation "to bring its boys home." But, unfortunately, when it comes to the fate of the missing soldiers, "morals" are only felt on this side of the border. In between is a twilight zone. The last homecoming of MIAs was certainly no cause for celebration. As the coffins of St.-Sgts. Benny Avraham, Adi Avitan and Omar Sayawid were being returned by Hizbullah in February 2004, a Palestinian terrorist blew up a Jerusalem bus. More names were added to memorials. More tears were shed. And still there are families whose sons are neither dead nor among the living.