Netanyahu's Man for Israelis Missing in Gaza: Improper Behavior, but the Man for the Job

The tone with which Netanyahu's envoy spoke to the family of the 28-year-old Israeli missing in Gaza was inexcusable. But his experience is still required.

Ilan Assayag

The prime minister’s coordinator for prisoners-of-war and missing persons has only himself to blame for the things he said to the family of the missing youngster Avera Mengistu, and mostly for the way he said them. But he still has the advantage of experience and resolve.

Twenty years of working to return prisoners and missing persons did Col. (res.) Lior Lotan no good last Wednesday at his meeting with the Mengistu family. Nor did the citation he received after being badly wounded when he and his elite commando unit stormed a building to extract abducted soldier Nachshon Wachsman in 1994. Lotan committed the worst sin of all in the current era – he was recorded speaking in a brash, even threatening way to a family in the most awful distress.

The facts that the family is of Ethiopian origin and that Lotan was attempting to defend his boss, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, did not help matters. Less than half-an-hour after the conversation was aired on Channel 10 on Thursday night, opposition MKs (Ilan Gilon, Haim Jelin, Shelly Yacimovich) were competing over who could demand Lotan’s immediate dismissal in the loudest voice. A virtual firing squad was mobilized on Twitter.

Lotan has only himself to blame. He made a tactical error in believing the Mengistu family wasn’t recording him, after he had asked and been told that they weren’t. He didn’t consider that the family had nothing more to lose. They had been all but ignored. Tzachi Hanegbi, chairman of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, alluded to the briefing the committee had received about the missing youngster as “anecdotal” and former foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman said he hadn’t even been informed of the man’s 10-month absence.

Lotan also made a fatal ethical blunder, when he sternly explained to the family, in a tone seen as condescending, why its clash with Netanyahu wouldn’t facilitate Avera’s return.

Lotan has partially admitted his error, according to people who spoke to him last week. What he probably meant to say was that a public struggle, in which the family criticizes the government, would play into Hamas’ hands and persuade it to keep Avera in Gaza for a long time, in order to raise the price it could extort from Israel. That was the case with the long negotiations before the Gilad Shalit deal, according to many professionals.

At some stage, and very belatedly, Lotan arranged a telephone conversation between the family and Netanyahu. In a portion of the conversation broadcast last week, Netanyahu was heard complaining that the gag order on releasing the story had been lifted. Mengistu’s father also complained. He wanted to know why the prime minister hadn’t replied to his letters for eight months.

Lotan was apparently frustrated by the telephone call, which really does sound like a dialogue of the deaf. Then he met with the family and gave the regrettable, scolding lecture about the importance that they not offend Netanyahu’s honor.

Former coordinators of prisoners and missing persons tended to avoid meeting the abducted soldiers’ families, leaving them to their aides. Lotan, since his appointment last October, made sure to meet the Mengistu family. His trip last week subjected him to a political and media hazing. “Third grade PR agent,” MK Gilon called him. Others described him as Netanyahu’s servant. Sima Kadmon wrote in Friday’s Yediot Ahronoth, after the recordings had been aired, that she wouldn’t want to meet a man like Lotan in a dark alley.

Despite Lotan’s gaffes, I’d say the opposite. If a soldier close to me had been captured by Hamas, I’d be happy if Lotan were there to devote the same determination and courage he displayed in trying to save Wachsman, or when he headed the force that abducted Mustafa Dirani in Lebanon, as part of the effort to trace Ron Arad. If a relative of mine crossed the border to Gaza, I’d want Lotan’s vast experience to work for him, despite his impropriety.

Many mistakes have been made in the Mengistu affair. The decision to ban the incident’s publication for 10 months was erroneous and undemocratic. The indifference of the state’s leaders to the family and Lotan’s “talking down” to them reeked of alienation and disdain. But that does not justify swinging in the opposite direction and freeing masses of Hamas terrorists in exchange for Mengistu and the missing Bedouin youngster. It is a humanitarian issue that needs intelligent handling, not ranting and raving at the expense of family tragedies.

The prime minister renounced Lotan’s statements and rightly so. Netanyahu will presumably wait to gauge the public mood before deciding whether to keep Lotan in his job or not.

Contrary to some reports, Lotan is not personally or politically associated with Netanyahu. He took the task on himself with a sense of calling. Some of his friends warned him not to volunteer for the job. It will soon transpire if he should have listened to them.