Bringing the MIAs home is a 'do it yourself task'  

Sunday, February 15, 2004

Nearly 22 years after his son Zecharia "went missing" in Lebanon with two of his IDF comrades, Yona Baumel is still hopeful that "Zak" is alive. Even this week, he was waiting to hear new information from a source in Syria and was expecting to meet with a "Mr. X" from the PLO. After years of disappointment from government and army officials, he has concluded - at least in his case - that the redeeming of Israeli captives has become a "do-it-yourself" task.

"As far back as I remember, I wanted to live in Israel. My wife Miriam was of the same mind," Baumel recalled this week, talking to Anglo File at a Jerusalem cafe. But he remained in the United States for 21 years after his graduation from Brooklyn College before moving to Israel, in 1970. Zak was then nine-and-a-half-years old, the youngest of three children.

The family initially settled in the Haifa suburb of Kiryat Motzkin and Baumel worked in the textile industry. In Brooklyn, he had operated a knitting mill - a "sweatshop," he admits with a smile. When the factory moved further north to Kiryat Shmona, Baumel decided instead to head for Jerusalem, where he began a career in real estate, eventually becoming the sales manager for the Anglo Saxon agency.

Everything changed for the Baumels in June 1982, during the first week of Israel's "Operation Peace for Galilee" campaign. Zak was nearing the end of his compulsory military service and had already registered to begin studying psychology in the fall at the Hebrew University. On June 11, Zak's tank became disabled during a battle against Syrian forces in Sultan Yaqub, in the Beqa'a Valley. The tank crew included three others: Zvi Feldman, Hezi Shai and Ariel Lieberman. According to Amnesty International, "All four are reported to have left their tank safely and to have dispersed in an attempt to escape from the battleground." Lieberman made it back to Israel two years later as part of a prisoner exchange with Syria and Shai returned in 1985 in the deal with Ahmed Jibril's Popular Front (PFLP-GC) organization. Baumel and Feldman are still missing in action, along with Yehuda Katz, who was in a second tank that was also disabled in the same battle.

Hezbollah has nothing to do with Zak's case

Yona Baumel says he can understand why the three MIAs from Sultan Yaqub were left out of the prisoner exchange conducted with Hezbollah last month. "According to the best of our knowledge, Hezbollah has nothing to do with Zak's case," Baumel explains. "So on the one hand, it was logical. But on the other hand," he adds, the case of the three MIAs from Sultan Yaqub has "over the years, been swept under the rug... There were prisoner exchanges where they should have been included and they weren't."

Zak should have been brought home in 1984, his father says. "The prisoner exchange in 1984 was a disaster and was a foreseeable disaster. The Syrians claimed they had no control over Jibril, who was known to be holding Israeli prisoners, and that was a lot of poppycock." Baumel notes that the father of Zak's crewmate Lieberman said he'd be willing to wait longer for his son "in order to get your son out too." But Baumel says that "for political reasons" the government went forward with a deal that exchanged all Syrian prisoners in Israeli hands for Israeli prisoners held directly by Syria. The government's explanation, he says, was that "the Syrians are capricious, and we need to take whatever we can."

In the following year, 1985, Israel's national unity government released 1,150 Palestinians in exchange for three Israeli soldiers held by Jibril, including Hezi Shai. Baumel thinks this was a "horrible" deal.

If Zak were part of the Jibril deal, would you still call it "horrible"?

"I think I've had enough experience not to answer such questions - There are few things I stay away from and one of them is the question of price. I think it's very counterproductive. I just feel it's wrong to put the government or any negotiator at a disadvantage." Baumel adds that the military establishment and government "have made it very clear to us that this is not our job." For example, "At one time, there was talk about an Entebbe-type operation because they had four bodies buried in a Jewish cemetery in Syria. The families were opposed to it, because we all agreed that we didn't want anyone else to be killed or captured. But the army told us very curtly that it was not our place to make a statement on this. So we have no input as far as any price to be paid in return."

The mother of missing airman Ron Arad made it clear that she thinks Israel should not pay a price to retrieve her son's body if he is no longer alive. How do you feel about this?

"I devote a lot of time and my wife devotes a lot of time to finding Zak. I don't think I would have the energy to do this just to bring his body back. I would leave that to somebody else. I wouldn't go so far as what Batya Arad left in her will, because I think that it's the duty of Israel to bring its sons back to burial in Israel. [But] I don't think I would have the energy to do what I'm doing if I didn't believe that there was a strong chance that Zak was alive. I'm not saying that I know he's alive. I have information that he's alive. The thought of him being in captivity and that we're not doing the maximum, whatever we can - it's just too much to bear."

Is your hope still as strong as it was 10 or 20 years ago?

"I think that we have more quality information today than we had 10 years ago. I'm the first one to point out that we're talking about information, not facts. We recently received something that involves a physical determination of whether the artifacts we were given - fingerprints and DNA - are real. More than half have not proven to be real and we're working on the balance. If the artifacts prove out, it's an entirely new ball game."

What are you doing this week, for example, on Zak's case?

"We're waiting for a report from somebody I have in Syria. I don't know about today, but I think there was a time when I had more people in Syria than the Israeli government did, and I don't say this with pride. I think it's horrible."

Baumel was also slated to meet with a Palestinian contact this week. "I got a call from Mr. X, whom I had contact with many years ago and his family is strongly connected to the PLO. I know that if he wants to see me, then he was ordered to do this. So, this week we'll get together. I have a lot of friends in the Arab world and they take up time."

He is also prepared to travel to Syria, but is waiting for an official invitation. "Syria is a very rough country. I've been in a lot of sticky situations. I've been involved in situations where I wasn't sure whether I'd come out alive. But I was involved because I said to myself, `I'm sure Zak was scared when he was in the tank.' But I don't go headlong into something that in Hebrew is called a harpatka (adventure).

"I was in Tunis in 1989 - Rabin let me go. I was in Jordan in 1986, again Rabin let me go. But in each case, I went without any authority. In Tunis, we were having meetings that were just horrible, because it was only me facing a battery of PLO people. Arafat wanted to meet with me, but he wasn't in Tunis. I said if he'd come when I'm there I'll meet with him, otherwise I'm not going to wait for him - and he hasn't forgiven me to this day. Everybody has promised me a meeting with him, but he won't meet with me."

Since 1982, there have been lots of ups and downs in the search for information about Zak, his father says. "At the moment, we're on a threshold, and if it's for real, then it will be a breakthrough. If it's not, then we'll keep going," he adds, noting that the potential breakthrough is unrelated to the testing of "artifacts" or meeting with Mr. X. "I'll tell you," he says, choosing his words carefully, "you won't read about most of our activities in the newspapers. We don't run to the newspapers as some of the other cases do. You may say, `what the hell, you're 22 years down the line, maybe you're doing something wrong,' and I'll agree with you. But that's the way we've worked. Look, time and age have taken their tolls. There's no doubt about it. There was a time when we did more."

Political allies and SOBs

Baumel has found allies among Israeli politicians from various political parties. In fact, the first names he mentions are those of Arab and Druze MKs. He has fewer positive things to say about Israel's prime ministers. "I had a meeting with Sharon a month ago. It did not make the press. The meeting was at 10 o'clock at night. And Sharon gave me carte blanche vis-a-vis Syria. I went out of there feeling somewhat betrayed, even though he had agreed to everything I wanted, because basically, it's not my job. The impression I got was that he wouldn't stand in my way, but also wasn't going to take any initiative himself."

Baumel's disappointment with Ehud Barak goes back long before he became prime minister in 1999. "Barak was the acting commander at Sultan Yaqub. This was one of the biggest debacles in the history of the IDF," Baumel says. But this is not the only reason Barak was "a son of a bitch," he explains. "When Barak was prime minister, we had a bill passed in the American Congress. It was called the Zachary Baumel Law. And we wanted to pass something similar in the Knesset. We went into the session having a majority and then Barak twisted a few elbows and we went out without a law." Baumel adds that the bill was mainly declaratory, "but when push comes to shove, sometimes these things are important."

Based on this past experience, Baumel is not placing any great hopes that the three Sultan Yaqub MIAs will get much attention in the second stage of the Hezbollah deal, which focuses on obtaining information on missing airman Ron Arad. "The IDF and Israeli government are in a no-win situation, because after so many years, where the hell were they? Where have they been?"

What do you imagine yourself doing with Zak when he returns?

"First of all, there are a lot of people whom I would want him to meet throughout the world, Jewish and non-Jewish, who have helped and are helping. One thing is that Zak always had good friends. We're not alone. There's a hard core of people who are very devoted to the case."

He mentions, for example, a Christian group in Holland ("Davidka") and U.S. senators from South Dakota and Kansas (neither of whom have large Jewish constituencies). "There are members of the Israeli government today who I would hang up by their fingernails and there are people who are doing avodat kodesh (holy work)," he says.

Baumel also recognizes that after 22 years, a different Zak would be returning. "I would imagine that if and when Zak comes back, our problems are just beginning. You see what Tennenbaum was like after three years in captivity. Of course, I'm sure Zak didn't get the same working over that Tennenbaum did, because Tennenbaum was a colonel and he knew a lot. And Zak was [just] a tank commander. But, on the other hand, I know that Zak is not licking honey," he says, translating from the Yiddish.

"People think that after so many years we are fooling ourselves. But there is hope. We have some pretty good information from sources that are not even available to the Israeli government. Allahu Akbar [God is great, in Arabic]. God knows, it's been a long time."

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