Empty places, empty promises

Israel's MIAs must not be allowed to disappear from the diplomatic agenda.

Gilad Shalit 298 ch 10 (photo credit: Channel 10)
Gilad Shalit 298 ch 10
(photo credit: Channel 10)
Passover is a time of tradition. The whole point of the Seder is to pass on to the younger generation the history of our people, to tell the story as if each of us personally came out of Egypt. At our Seder my family maintains all the usual customs - the Four Questions are asked by the youngest, four cups of wine are poured and drunk, and everyone argues about the math of the plagues and the order of things. We have also established our own traditions which over the years have spread across the world with family and friends. But there is one tradition I would be oh-so-happy not to pass on to my young son: We always leave a spare seat and place setting for the missing soldiers. After nearly 25 years, it counts as a tradition. After nearly a quarter of a century, I wish we could drop it. The Hebrew media this year made a special point of reminding the public that it has been nearly a year since Gilad Schalit, Eldad Regev and Udi (Ehud) Goldwasser were abducted. Less prominent were the names of the soldiers missing since the Battle of Sultan Yaakub early in the first Lebanon war. The families of Zachary Baumel, Zvi Feldman and Yehuda Katz haven't been able to celebrate the Festival of Freedom properly since 1982; IAF navigator Ron Arad hasn't attended a Seder since 1986 and Guy Hever has been been missing since 1997. As with many traditions, our empty place setting was not so much a conscious decision as something that just came naturally. Somehow the issue of the MIAs has always been very personal to my family. When my brother was fighting early in the first Lebanon war and his friends and mine were being killed, our greatest - largely unspoken - fear was of death or injury. Then the brother of the shopkeeper next to my parents' printing press in Karmiel was captured by the Syrians. Suddenly we became aware of another terrible possibility in war. Being taken prisoner. Studying an international law course at the Hebrew University with Prof. Ruth Lapidoth - who answered all my questions with patience and empathy that must have required a superhuman effort from someone whose own son had recently been killed - I discovered that our neighbor, Yohanan Alon, was in a relatively "good" position because he was being held by a state as opposed to a terrorist organization, and even had contact with the Red Cross. Negotiations wouldn't be easy but they were feasible. He was a prisoner of war, with the very basic rights that that entails. Yohanan came home to much fanfare and backslapping by politicians on June 28, 1984, minus some teeth and with the translucent pallor that comes from not seeing the light of day for a couple of years, but alive. His homecoming at the family's house in Acre was unforgettable. THE FAMILY of another MIA, Zachary Baumel, moved, like my parents, from Karmiel to Jerusalem where they live by chance just down the road to us. Yona and Miriam Baumel have proven that they would literally travel to the ends of the earth to save their son. Their attempts to find information about his fate and bring him back home have already taken them to countries most Israelis cannot and do not want to visit. The families of the MIAs have all been to the darkest place imaginable - a hell from which they and their sons have not yet returned. Any parent who has lost sight of their young child in a crowd knows that stomach-churning feeling; your legs can barely support you but the adrenaline doesn't let you stop moving until you get them back. How can we fathom what it is like to know your child is lost in an enemy land? "You can't imagine what it's like to wake up in the middle of the night thinking about your kidnapped son. All the time, when you're not thinking about something else, you are thinking about your son. There's no such thing as a blank thought for me, and I'm sure it's like that with the other families," wrote Yona Baumel on July 14, 2006. Shortly after Schalit was abducted last summer, Baumel was asked in a TV interview if he had thought of offering comfort to the Schalit family. Baumel replied: "Do you really think that the Schalits would want to hear from me, whose son has been missing for 24 years?" What, indeed, can you say? I see Yona almost every Friday night on his way to synagogue and simply wish him the traditional "Shabbat shalom." We have a place at our table and in our hearts for his son. Words of comfort, we don't have. As I write these lines, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is announcing the release of the 15 detained British sailors and marines as an Easter season gift to the British people. In his patronizing tones, he is criticizing Britain for deploying Leading Seaman Faye Turney in the Gulf, asking: "How can you justify sending a mother away from her home, her children? Why don't they respect family values in the West?" Ahmadinejad's dramatic press conference came the same time that US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi paid her controversial visit to Syria, where, she, too, reportedly raised the issue of Israel's missing soldiers. It is not yet clear what a possible behind-the-scenes deal enabling the release of the British soldiers entailed. It's doubtful that the gesture was based solely on family values and seasonal goodwill, whatever Ahmadinejad is willing to tell the marines. He might be mad, but he's not stupid. ON AUGUST 11, 2006, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1701 ending the war in Lebanon - a war started when Hizbullah kidnapped Regev and Goldwasser and began its Katyusha bombardment of northern Israel. Since then, Lebanon is being rebuilt with international help. Syria and the Palestinians are, albeit with forked tongue, beginning to talk of peace. But true peace cannot come without closure. Any diplomatic negotiations must include a deal that frees Gilad Schalit, Eldad Regev and Udi Goldwasser as well as Zachary Baumel, Zvi Feldman, Yehuda Katz, Ron Arad and Guy Hever. The country's leaders missed a chance when in December 1993 Yasser Arafat delivered half of Baumel's dog tag and a lot of empty promises to Yitzhak Rabin; it missed a chance in the 2004 prisoner exchange, in which civilian Elhanan Tannenbaum was returned while information on Arad never materialized. Iran and Syria are both believed to have knowledge about the whereabouts of Israel's missing soldiers, all of them. Their Hizbullah and Hamas henchmen know something about where most of them are as well. The "boys" have been missing long enough. One day was long enough, just ask their families. Ask the families of the British soldiers. Our boys sometimes seem to have disappeared from the face of the earth. To bring them back, we cannot allow them to disappear from the diplomatic agenda. Let's pray that next year we can start a new tradition and raise a glass to them at our Seder table instead of having an empty place. The writer is editor of the International Edition of The Jerusalem Post.