(JNS) It’s doubtful the sentence “the State of Israel will do everything in its power” has ever been more pertinent than in the case of Ron Arad. Ever since his disappearance in mid-1988, Israel has turned over every possible stone in an effort to solve the mystery—only to come up empty.
Arad could (and should) have been brought back home shortly after falling into the hands of the Amal terrorist organization. The price placed on his head was reasonable, but the country’s leaders—specifically then-Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin—were still hurting from the Jibril prisoner exchange deal and its fallout, which led among other things to the First Intifada, and were hesitant to make another deal.
Batya Arad, before her death, asked only to know what had happened to her son. If he is dead, she said, don’t exchange any prisoner for him—just tell me.
Arad paid the price. The letters he wrote at the time (some of which only arrived years later) were heart-wrenching, full of sadness and longing—for his wife Tami, his daughter, Yuval, his mother Batya and the State of Israel, which sent him on that fateful sortie over Lebanon on October 16, 1986, and failed to bring him home.
His family at the time heeded the advice not to cause a public ruckus so as not to raise the price of his release, and by the time they finally realized the country’s leaders only work to resolve such issues when pressure is applied, it was too late. This lesson was internalized by the Goldwasser and Regev families, and later by the family of Gilad Schalit, whose pressure campaigns directly led to the deals that brought their sons home, whether dead or alive.
The last time Arad was seen alive was May 4, 1988, in the Shi’ite village of Nabi Sheet in southern Lebanon. Since that day there have been countless rumors about what happened to him. It was said he was transferred to Iran and imprisoned there (various inmates even recounted encountering an Israeli prisoner), along with numerous other tales that were all proven baseless. In recent years, the account that has come to be commonly accepted by Israeli intelligence agencies is that Arad was killed that night.
At the time, the IDF carried out a large raid in the nearby village of Meidoun in which numerous Lebanese fighters were killed. One hypothesis is that his guards were summoned to fight in Meidoun, and Arad was killed attempting to escape. Another hypothesis is that one of his captors returned from that battle and killed Arad as revenge.
Either way, it’s clear to Israel that the keys to solving this mystery are buried in Nabi Sheet. Over the ensuing decades, the Mossad, Israel Security Agency (Shin Bet) and Israel Defense Forces have carried out countless operations in an effort to discover Arad’s fate. Batya Arad, before her death, asked only to know what had happened to her son. If he is dead, she said, don’t exchange any prisoner for him—just tell me.
This last will and testament reverberates to this day, and forms the bedrock of the current searches for his whereabouts. Much as in the past, the State of Israel is truly doing everything in its power: running agents behind enemy lines and putting its own soldiers at risk, paying large sums of money and investigating leads—thus far without result.
Sometimes, evidently, doing everything still isn’t enough, especially when it is done substantially late. And this is also the lesson of this chapter of Israeli history: Prisoner exchanges need to happen when they are possible. The other side will always be crueler, less humane and greedier. It is an outrage, but this is the reality. Still, it’s better to be on the side that is humane and cares for its people.
And one more word, about Prime Minister Naftali Bennett. His statements about the Mossad operation to determine Arad’s fate managed to silence the Knesset on Monday and grab the headlines, but such operations have been taking place for the past 30 years, some of them hair-raising, the details of which will never be revealed.
Prime ministers are expected to hold their tongues and not reveal operational or intelligence information unless there are tangible benefits to doing so, which wasn’t the case this time. The Arad family has known enough disappointment and grief, and no fleeting headline justifies the trauma his loved ones are forced to endure anew every time.
Yoav Limor is a veteran Israeli journalist and columnist for Israel Hayom.