Behind the Lines: Pawns of propaganda?

The timing of the Lebanese documentary - at after the war, when prisoner swaps for the three kidnapped soldiers are at the top of the agenda - is not coincidental.

ron arad 298.88 (photo credit: Channel 10)
ron arad 298.88
(photo credit: Channel 10)
The Lebanese documentary shown on Channel 10 in two segments on Tuesday and Wednesday raised many more questions than it answered. Screening the pictures of Ron Arad smoking and talking in his prison cell in 1987, and the footage of Hizbullah's capture of the three IDF soldiers on Har Dov in October 2000, may have been necessary. But it should have been done differently. From the moment the existence of the film was leaked, a bidding war broke out between the two commercial channels on the screening rights in Israel, which turned into a prestige battle. Channels 2 and 10 each offered approximately 200,000 Euros. According to the film's French producer, Channel 10 won because "it does more to support dialogue between the nations." Whatever he meant by that, there is no doubt that the main beneficiary of the screening - other than the filmmaker and Channel 10 - was Hassan Nasrallah. Seeing Arad after all these years was undoubtedly a valuable moment for his family, friends and the rest of the public who have experienced his plight in a deeply personal way, but we still have no new information about his whereabouts. He was filmed while still held by Amal somewhere in Lebanon, shortly after which he was spirited away, and nothing is known about his fate during the last decade and a half. The conclusions have already been drawn: Israel could have done more at the time to engage Amal. But the national trauma following the 1985 Jibril deal - in which 1,150 terrorists were exchanged for three IDF prisoners - was still fresh. And by the time the government was prepared to make another deal, it was too late. Since then, Israel has spared no financial or human resource in the search for new information. In fact, according to some reports, at least one agent lost his life in the pursuit. At this point, new footage or no, there is almost incontrovertible evidence that Arad was handed over to an Iranian-backed organization. Which mean that Israel has to demand answers from Teheran. As for the Har Dov attack, the footage served to underline the criminal negligence characteristic of the way the IDF operated on the border, and how nothing seemed to have been learned between then and two months ago, when, in an almost identical attack, Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev were captured. But because of the way the film was spliced and edited, it is impossible to answer a number of crucial questions. Among them: when and how the soldiers met their deaths; whether Hizbullah was negotiating their return alive, when only their bodies were in its hands; and what role the members of UNIFIL on the scene played. ONE THING is certain: The documentary was a clever propaganda broadcast, if not prepared directly by Hizbullah, at least with its blessing. The timing of the release - at the end of the war in Lebanon, when prisoner swaps for Gilad Shalit, Goldwasser and Regev are at the top of the agenda in Israel, Lebanon and the PA - is not coincidental. Nasrallah has long been aware of the not-entirely-rational sensitivity that accompanies this issue in Israel, and he is an expert at exploiting it. He could have predicted that such a documentary would stoke the coals of internal Israeli pressure for prisoner exchanges. A central interviewee in the documentary, Nasrallah comes across as a thoughtful and balanced statesman. I have commented before about the Israeli media transforming the Hizbullah leader into an icon, but this week Channel 10 elevated the phenomenon to new heights. (Though it is not totally negative to treat Nasrallah as the highly intelligent foe that he is - rather than dismiss him as a mere monster - putting him on a pedestal obscures the fact that he also makes many mistakes, just as our own leaders do.) Channel 10 was so excited with its success in obtaining what anchor Ya'acov Eilon termed "the pictures we've all been waiting 20 years to see" that it behaved as though this were some kind of journalistic achievement, rather than the endeavor of a reporter sympathetic to Hizbullah. There is no doubt that if the channel's energetic reporters had been the ones doing the work, they would have gone to much greater lengths to probe the real motive behind the footage; where it was being held; why it's being released now; and, above all, what is still missing from it. The Lebanese reporter, the French producer and Israeli researcher Naftali Gliksberg were all given far too much credit for their "professionalism." The anger of the Arad family at Israelis who knew about the footage of Ron for months prior to the broadcast and didn't feel it their duty to report it is totally understandable. The conduct of Gliksberg should cast a shade of doubt over his previous documentary which sought to refute the official account of Yitzhak Rabin's assassination. Regarding Channel 10, as absurd as this may sound, perhaps it would have made more sense in this case for the three main channels to set commercial competition aside and form a consortium to purchase the film jointly - and then analyze, edit and broadcast it in a professional and responsible manner. Reading George Orwell's "As I Please" columns this week, I came upon the following piece, written in December 1943, which bears reprinting here: "One way of feeling infallible is not to keep a diary. Looking back through the diary I kept in 1940 and 1941 I find that I was usually wrong when it was possible to be wrong. Yet I was not so wrong as the Military Experts. Experts of various schools were telling us in 1939 that the Maginot Line was impregnable, and that the Russo-German Pact had put an end to Hitler's eastwards expansion; in early 1940 they were telling us that the days of tank warfare were over; in mid 1940 they were telling us that the Germans would invade Britain forthwith; in mid 1941 that the Red army would fold up in six weeks; in December 1941, that Japan would collapse after ninety days; in July 1942, that Egypt was lost and so on, more or less indefinitely. Where now are the men who told us those things? Still on the job, drawing fat salaries. Instead of the unsinkable battleship we have the unsinkable Military Expert..." One point of observation: Orwell's weekly columns appeared in The Tribune for 15 months during the final stages of the World War II. The left-wing newspaper has been dead for decades, while Orwell remains immortal.