Defense Minister Ehud Barak and his aides made the right decision, for a change, in ceasing financial support for the Born to Freedom Foundation. The organization's stated purpose is to obtain information on missing Israel Air Force navigator Ron Arad, the three Israeli soldiers who have been missing in action since the 1982 Battle of Sultan Yacoub in Lebanon, and MIAs Majdi Halabi and Guy Hever. It enjoys generous assistance from the Defense Ministry, amounting to NIS 11 million a year. In addition, the state has promised to underwrite the foundation's offer of a $10 million reward to anyone with reliable information leading to the MIAs' whereabouts.
The organization spends about 15 percent of its budget on its senior officials, who earn a few hundred thousand shekels a year. The remainder goes to "operational activities": the employment of dozens of telephone operators, data miners and analysts who try to persuade citizens of Iran and Arab states to provide information about the MIAs.
You don't have to be a demagogue to imagine what genuinely needy charities, such as the Central Library for the Blind in Israel, could do with that kind of money. Nearly every year, the library faces the threat of closure for lack of a few hundred thousand shekels. But the decision to stop funding Born to Freedom, the product of a committee that probed the matter, did not happen because the Defense Ministry was suddenly taken over by a "social-welfare" caprice. It was firmly, and solely, grounded in the world of security.
Throughout its years of activity and tens of millions of shekels spent, the organization has not provided a single crumb of information about the fate of the MIAs. It may even impede the intelligence-gathering effort because it lacks the tools to verify the information it obtains, which it passes on to Israel's intelligence agencies.
Even this week, during its well-orchestrated public relations campaign to save itself, the foundation proved that there's no reason for it to suckle at the teat of the state budget. It presented what was described in the media as a "new picture" of an Israeli tank from the first Lebanon war being driven through the streets of Damascus in a victory parade. On it is a body, which might be one of three MIAs from the Battle of Sultan Yacoub. The truth is that this photograph, taken by a foreign television crew, has been in the possession of Israeli intelligence since June 1982 and sheds no new light on the mystery of the soldiers' disappearance.
The mission taken on by the NGO is beyond its capabilities. None of the intelligence agencies, with all their multifarious means of collecting information, have succeeded at it. The former head of the Mossad, Meir Dagan, admitted that one of his great failures was his inability to acquire information on Ron Arad and the other MIAs. So how did the foundation think it would prevail where the Mossad, Military Intelligence, the Shin Bet security service and the Foreign Ministry failed?
It must be remembered, too, that the foundation's current form is the outcome of a process that was imposed on its founders. It was established by people close to Arad, and its funding sources were private. At some stage they took advantage of their prestige as representatives of the national ethos and their access to the country's decision makers, whom they persuaded to allocate money to the organization.
At first the foundation's heads refused to deal with the other MIAs. It was only under the threat of a petition to the High Court of Justice by Pirhia Katz, sister of the MIA Yehuda Katz, that the organization expanded its ranks and its scope of action. For the past several years it has dealt with all of Israel's MIAs.
But this is no reason to continue to support Born to Freedom. The work of obtaining information on the MIAs belongs to the intelligence services that handle the issue, even if they too face criticism. At the end of the day, the foundation was just another organization that supplied jobs and action to a few retired intelligence and defense officials.
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