The Ron Arad saga: National trauma or national obsession?

NATIONAL AFFAIRS: One person’s obsession is another’s badge of honor.

 WORDS OF SUPPORT are written on a large flag depicting then-captive IDF soldier Gilad Schalit and missing soldier Ron Arad, in a protest tent outside of the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem, in 2010. The trauma over Arad’s fate will continue to resonate. (photo credit: MIRIAM ALSTER/FLASH90)
WORDS OF SUPPORT are written on a large flag depicting then-captive IDF soldier Gilad Schalit and missing soldier Ron Arad, in a protest tent outside of the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem, in 2010. The trauma over Arad’s fate will continue to resonate.
(photo credit: MIRIAM ALSTER/FLASH90)

The Guardian, reporting this week on Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s cryptic yet dramatic announcement in the Knesset that the Mossad recently carried out two operations to discover the fate of missing airman Ron Arad, said that what happened to Arad “has been a national obsession in Israel for decades.”

An “obsession” generally has negative connotations, with the website definition being that “an obsession with something is an unhealthy, extreme interest in it.”

Gideon Levy, the far-left columnist for Haaretz, shares this view and takes it even further. In a column headlined “Israel’s Obsessive Worship of the Dead,” Levy writes that “the insane hunt for the body of missing Israeli navigator Ron Arad can only be described as state-sponsored necrophilia.” No less.

Counter that with how Bennett told the Knesset that the Mossad last month carried out two operations to try to obtain new information on what happened to Arad, whose plane exploded on a mission over Lebanon on October 16, 1986. Arad’s fate has been seared into the nation’s consciousness, along with a carefree picture image of him with his young daughter, Yuval, on his shoulder before captivity, and a haunting picture of his bearded, hollow-cheeked visage after he was taken prisoner.

“Last month, Mossad agents – men and women – embarked on a complex, wide-ranging and daring operation to find new information about the fate and whereabouts of Ron Arad,” Bennett said – completely unexpectedly – in his speech opening the Knesset’s winter session.

“That is all that can be said at this time. We made another effort in the attempt to understand what Ron’s fate was.”

Redeeming captives, Bennett declared, “is a Jewish value that became one of the holiest values of the State of Israel.... It is the type of thing that appears odd and even exaggerated to those looking at Israel from the outside. But it is what defines and unites us. We will continue to work to bring all of our boys home from anywhere they are found.”

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett speaking in the Knesset plenum on October 4, 2021. (credit: NOAM MOSKOVICH)Prime Minister Naftali Bennett speaking in the Knesset plenum on October 4, 2021. (credit: NOAM MOSKOVICH)

The Knesset plenum, which was raucous up until that point, was dead quiet when Bennett made this dramatic announcement. It then erupted once again after Bennett moved on to another topic. But even that eruption paled compared to the public debate that followed.

Why did Bennett make this announcement? Why did he not give more details? Was the operation a success, or a failure? Was the announcement meant as a signal to Iran? Was it somehow connected to an Israeli-alleged Iranian plot to kill Israeli businessmen in Cyprus?

Then there were the political questions: Was Bennett just trying to grab headlines, succeeding in making sure that this – and not his predecessor Benjamin Netanyahu’s criticism of him in his own Knesset speech – was what drove headlines for the next 24 hours? Was this not Bennett learning from Netanyahu about how to reveal the existence of sensitive intelligence operations for political gain? Was this not the height of hypocrisy, since he – and other members of the current coalition – berated Netanyahu in the past for the “political” use of sensitive intelligence information.

Bennett hid much more than he revealed in his statement, but he did whet everyone’s appetite for more. And that appetite was immediately filled by media outlets in the Arab world.

One outlet, the London-based Rai al-Youm website, wrote that what Bennett referred to was an operation inside Syria where an Iranian general was abducted by Israeli agents, spirited out to an African country where he was questioned about Arad, before being let go.

Another story, this one broadcast by the Saudi television station Al Arabiya, alleged that Israeli agents took DNA extracts from the remains of a buried body in a village in southern Lebanon called Nabi Sheet, the last place where Arad was seen alive on May 4, 1988.

And from Bennett’s office and the Mossad? Nary a word of detail, except a denial of reports that Defense Ministry officials said the “daring” operation that Bennett discussed was actually a failure.

Two days after the speech Bennett was spoofed in a cartoon in Yediot Aharonot wearing a tuxedo, holding a martini and brandishing a pistol while, in a takeoff on James Bond, he introduced himself as “Bond, Naftali Bond.”

The only real light that was shed by Bennett’s statement was on the poor state of his relations with Defense Minister Benny Gantz.

According to media reports, while Foreign Minister Yair Lapid was given plenty of prior notice of what Bennett was to say about the operations in his Knesset speech, Gantz was left in the dark until just before Bennett delivered his speech, by which time it was too late for him to object.

Poor Gantz. First then-prime minister Netanyahu kept him out of the loop last year about the impending peace accords with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, and now Bennett didn’t bother to tell him that he was about to reveal a significant security secret.

The Bennett-Gantz tension led, after the speech, to a ping-pong of versions about the Mossad operation, with Defense Ministry officials saying immediately that the operation was a failure and that Bennett’s comments were not coordinated with the Mossad, and the Prime Minister’s Office issuing a rare denial of this a few hours later and adding that not only were the operations successful, but that saying otherwise was “a flat-out lie.”

So while the Israeli public may be no wiser regarding what happened to Arad or what the Mossad did indeed do last month to obtain more information, it has been made aware that things are not running smoothly between the Prime Minister’s Office and that of the defense minister.

REGARDLESS OF whether one believes that Israel’s continued interest in the fate of Arad, and its willingness to risk people’s lives and spend millions of shekels to put an end to the mystery, is an obsession or a source of pride, one thing is undeniable: it is a trauma that has shaped how Israel deals with the supersensitive question of missing soldiers.

It is a trauma shaped, to a certain extent, by an earlier trauma, the exchange deal in 1985 with Ahmed Jibril.

Arad was taken captive on October 16, 1986, by the Shia Amal organization after he and the pilot of the plane which he was navigating ejected following an explosion in their Phantom jet while on a mission to attack PLO targets near Sidon.

The pilot, Yishai Aviram, was rescued; Arad was captured and held by Mustafa Dirani, who years later was kidnapped by Israel in one of the many attempts to gain information, or the release, of Arad. Amal gave Arad over to Hezbollah.

Negotiations for Arad’s return were conducted by Israel’s troubleshooter with Lebanon, Uri Lubrani, who reportedly struck a deal by which Israel would give up Lebanese prisoners held by Israel’s allied South Lebanon Amy, dozens of Palestinian prisoners, as well as $3 million and some military hardware.

Then-defense minister Yitzhak Rabin balked at the deal, apparently traumatized by the release in 1985 of some 1,150 security prisoners – including Hamas spiritual leader Ahmed Yassin – in exchange for three Israeli prisoners from the First Lebanon War held by Jibril’s Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

This release was widely viewed as one of the triggers of the First Intifada, and with that intifada in full swing when the Arad deal was on the table, Rabin turned it down.

The trauma from the Jibril exchange led to the refusal, a couple of years later, to make a deal that was on the table – which in retrospect was widely viewed as a “reasonable offer” – to free Arad.

And that “missed opportunity” very much infused the debate over Gilad Schalit some 20 years later.

After Schalit’s capture in 2006, his family was advised not to follow the precedent set by the Arad family, which heeded defense establishment pleas when he was captured not to give the case a high public profile so as not to raise the price the terrorists would ask for Arad’s return. The Schalit family, by contrast, opted for a tactic of keeping the issue of their son’s captivity very much on the public agenda, so that the government would not “take its eye off the ball.”

A collective sense of guilt over not being willing to pay the price for Arad also invariably had an impact on Netanyahu’s willingness to pay such a high price in terms of security prisoners and terrorists released for Schalit – some 1,027. The government didn’t want the Arad precedent to be repeated with Schalit – missing an opportunity to free him because of the price tag.

Ironically, the Schalit deal – and the fact that so many of those released in that deal have returned to terrorism and have taken up leadership positions inside Hamas – has led to a different atmosphere today, with there now being a lively debate about what price should be paid to free prisoners or to secure the return of their remains.

The Arad saga also impacted the country and its decision-makers in other ways. While the country’s various security branches believe that Arad was likely killed in 1988 – though the circumstances of his death are debated – he has never been formally pronounced dead by Israel.

With that precedent in mind and the realization that live soldiers are much more valuable to the enemy than dead ones, the IDF acted relatively swiftly after Operation Protective Edge in 2014 in declaring missing soldiers Staff-Sgt. Oron Shaul and Lt. Hadar Goldin as having been killed in battle, and their bodies taken by Hamas. In this way Hamas’s bargaining power was significantly reduced, since the price that can be demanded for bodies is less than what can be demanded for captive soldiers.

When Bennett made his revelation about operations to obtain information about Arad, many wondered why Israel was delving into something that happened so long ago.

Why? Because the Arad saga is a trauma that – as long as Israel has to deal with the dilemma of captive soldiers and soldiers missing in action – will continue to resonate and inform the debate about what should and should not be done to set them free.