30 Years On

The Ron Arad File: Israel's Three Major Missed Opportunities to Recover MIA Aviator

A protracted intelligence gap, a missed window for a deal with Amal and years-long Israeli hesitation have perpetuated the mystery surrounding the missing navigator's fate.

A man watching a show on Ron Arad, 2006.
Kevin Frayer, AP

The disappearance of air force navigator Ron Arad – he was taken captive in Lebanon exactly 30 years ago next Sunday (Oct. 16) – remains an unsolved mystery. Despite the immense efforts Israel invested in the case, and despite the periodic reports produced by research teams from intelligence units of the Israel Defense Forces and Mossad, the intelligence community will find it difficult even in the years ahead to say it knows for certain exactly what befell Arad. And even though all the intelligence bodies have long since concluded that Arad died in captivity at least 20 years ago, the state has not officially declared him dead.

The whole episode remains a tragedy for Arad’s family and friends, but it bears broader implications as well. It cast a dark shadow over the ethos that Israel does everything in its power not to abandon captives to the enemy. The affair also had influence as far-reaching as they were unexpected on the way the political and security leadership of Israel has handled cases of captivity and abduction in the three decades since Arad was captured.

He was taken captive on Oct. 16, 1986, during an air force sortie to attack Palestine Liberation Organization targets in the Palestinian refugee camps near Sidon, Lebanon. The Phantom jet flown by pilot Yishai Aviram, in which Arad was the navigator, was damaged by an explosion that occurred when they dropped a bomb. Aviram and Arad ejected before the plane crashed; an air force attack helicopter rescued the pilot, but the wounded Arad was taken captive by Amal, a Shi’ite militia. Arad was held by Mustafa Dirani, a senior Amal figure who subsequently left the organization. About 18 months later, in May 1988, Dirani was no longer holding Arad. It’s thought that Arad may have been forcibly wrested from him by members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards in Lebanon.

From this point on there are only contradictory speculations about the navigator’s fate, but they lack solid foundations. In 2005, a Military Intelligence committee, appointed by the director of MI at the time, Maj. Gen. Aharon Ze’evi-Farkash, determined that Arad died in captivity in Lebanon in the mid-1990s, apparently from an illness. This week, Channel 2 News reported that new MI and Mossad investigations reached the conclusion that Arad died earlier, around the time he disappeared from the custody of Dirani and his cohorts. Dirani, Sheikh Abdel Karim Obeid and Jawad Kasfi were all abducted by Israel from Lebanon as part of the efforts to discover what happened to Arad and pressure Hezbollah to put an end to the affair. Dirani’s interrogation did not yield substantive results, and the three were eventually released in prisoner swaps. The Arad mystery remained unsolved.

Three misses

A retrospective analysis – based on conversations with former senior members of the intelligence community and individuals who were involved in the efforts to discover Arad’s fate and in various stages of the indirect negotiations with Amal, and afterward with Hezbollah – shows that Israel missed three opportunities in connection with the missing navigator. There was a protracted intelligence gap concerning Arad’s condition, a missed window of opportunity for a deal with Amal in which it might have been possible to return Arad to Israel alive in late 1987 or early 1988, and years-long hesitation by the political leadership, which refrained from declaring that Arad had fallen in action, despite the near-unanimous agreement by the intelligence exerts that he probably died in captivity.

Even so, it has to be admitted that there is no certainty that treating these opportunities differently would necessarily have led to Arad’s rescue in a military operation, to striking a prisoner-exchange deal with the Lebanese or to a consensus among Israeli public opinion that the affair had in fact come to an end.

The intelligence lacuna marked the Arad affair throughout and repeated itself, with certain differences, 10 years later when IDF soldier Gilad Shalit was abducted by Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Despite the tremendous efforts, millions of dollars and vast technological means that were deployed, Israel was unable to say for certain where Arad was, and subsequently lost track of him completely. As with Shalit, full synchronization was not achieved between intelligence ability and operational ability for a rescue. When the defense establishment possessed one of those capabilities, it lacked the other, and rescue was impossible without the prisoner being harmed.

The frustration only intensified in the Shalit case. Israel, which is capable of assassinating a terrorist in his car on a Gaza Strip road, and which, according to foreign reports, is able to identify and bomb arms convoys of Hezbollah in Syria and even a North Korean nuclear facility deep inside Syria, was unable to discover the location of an abductee just a few kilometers away, in the Gaza Strip, which Israel controls absolutely from the outside.

The second, and major, missed opportunity involves the course of the negotiations. The story has been told several times, and extensively so in Ronen Bergman’s book, “By Any Means Necessary” (Hebrew). In contacts that were coordinated from the side by the veteran Israeli security official Uri Lubrani, Israel received letters from and photographs of Arad from Amal. The militia’s leader, Nabih Berri, taking a far more moderate line than Hezbollah, expressed willingness to strike a deal in which Arad would be returned to Israel in exchange for Lebanese prisoners held by the South Lebanon Army in Khiam prison, in the Israeli-declared security zone in southern Lebanon. Berri also wanted money and afterward demanded that Israel give his organization Katyusha rockets and mortars.

According to close aides of Yitzhak Rabin, then defense minister in the unity government (under Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir), Rabin changed his mind and decided to reject the deal Lubrani had worked out via several mediators. The change of heart came after Berri added a demand for Israel’s release of dozens of PLO prisoners. Rabin was still traumatized by the 1985 Jibril deal, in which Israel released 1,150 security prisoners, most of them Palestinians, in return for three Israeli soldiers who had been captured in Lebanon by Ahmed Jibril’s organization.

The Jibril deal was perceived at the time as an unprecedented Israeli surrender to terrorist blackmail. According to some in the defense establishment, the first intifada, which erupted in December 1987 while talks were ongoing with Amal for Arad’s release, gained momentum with the aid of the prisoners released in the Jibril deal. Other security personnel who investigated the episode maintain that the main cause of Israel’s change of mind was Berri’s unexpected new demands. They add that shortly afterward, Amal lost control of its “asset” (Arad) because Dirani, who got into a dispute with the organization’s leadership, left and took Arad with him.

The third missed opportunity, rarely discussed publicly, relates to Arad’s being declared a fallen soldier. The conclusion of the intelligence experts that the navigator was no longer alive took shape toward the end of the 1990s. (He was officially listed as missing.) At the beginning of the 2000s, a committee headed by Judge Eliyahu Winograd concluded that Arad should not be declared dead, but in 2005 the MI committee decided otherwise.

A precise analysis of the findings, together with changes in Hezbollah’s behavior regarding the Arad affair (after Dirani no longer held the navigator, Israel viewed Hezbollah and Iran as the “addresses” for its demands about Arad), led MI to recommend that he be declared dead. MI chief Ze’evi-Farkash tried to persuade the prime minister, Ariel Sharon, to accept the recommendation, as this would deprive Hezbollah of a bargaining chip (as was the case with the three soldiers who were abducted at Har Dov, on Israel’s border with Lebanon, in 2000). But Sharon refused. “Do not lift up that rock,” Sharon told the MI director.

Sharon undoubtedly grasped the impact the announcement would have on Israeli public opinion if it were unaccompanied by a declaration of a full solution of the mystery, but without the return of the body. Leaving the Arad case open, despite the criticism occasionally leveled at the government, was apparently a lower public price for Sharon to pay than an unequivocal announcement of Arad’s death.

Not long after that meeting with Ze’evi-Farkash, Sharon suffered the stroke from which he never recovered. His successor, Ehud Olmert, did not manage to delve deeply into the issue. However, the fact that the Arad affair was left open apparently played a substantial role in the outbreak of the Second Lebanon War, in July 2006, six months after Olmert took office.

In the various contacts with Hezbollah – over the return of the bodies of infantrymen Yossi Fink and Rahamim Alsheikh in 1996 (a decade after their abduction), the return of the body of naval commando Itamar Ilya, killed in an operation by the unit in 1997, and over the deal to return the businessman, Col. (res.) Elhanan Tenenbaum and the bodies of the three Har Dov abductees – Israel repeatedly demanded Arad’s return as well. This was due in part to the public’s attitude. Whenever it looked as though the changing governments preferred to resolve the latest urgent problem ahead of the moral debt owed to Arad, a public furor arose and Arad’s family and friends launched a protest campaign against his abandonment.

When the Tenenbaum deal was finally concluded, in January 2004 with German mediation, Israel retained one last bargaining chip. In the second stage of the deal, Hezbollah was supposed to convey “substantive and concrete” information about Arad’s fate. The impression of the Israeli intelligence community was that Hezbollah was making an effort to solve the mystery and locate the site of Arad’s grave. (According to one theory, the terrain at the site has since changed, precluding the location of the body.) However, Hezbollah secretary general Hassan Nasrallah did not succeed – or perhaps was not determined enough – in meeting his obligation. Accordingly, Israel did not release the terrorist Samir Kuntar, which was its part in stage II of the deal.

Kuntar, a Lebanese-Druze, murdered an Israeli policeman and three members of the Haran family in a Nahariya attack in 1979. Nasrallah viewed Kuntar’s release as critical for his standing in Lebanon. He was under internal pressure and subjected to criticism for not keeping his promise to return Kuntar to his family and for refusing to disarm Hezbollah. That distress was one of the reasons for Nasrallah’s decision to order the operation on July 12, 2006, in which the bodies of two soldiers, Udi Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, were abducted, and eight more Israeli soldiers were killed – and which touched off the Second Lebanon War.

Kuntar was released two years later in the deal for the return of the bodies of Goldwasser and Regev. He joined Hezbollah, ran terrorist groups against Israel for the organization through Druze on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights border, and was killed in an air attack last December, an operation Hezbollah attributed to Israel.

The Arad affair had additional indirect consequences for Israel’s fluctuating approach to the issue of captives and soldiers missing in action. During Gilad Shalit’s time in Hamas captivity, comparisons to the Arad case recurred constantly. The Shalit family and the activists in the campaign for his release – in some cases with the support of the Arad family – implored the prime ministers of the period, Olmert and afterward Benjamin Netanyahu, not to repeat the tragic mistake of the Shamir and Rabin era, but to strike a bargain with Hamas quickly, before Shalit disappeared into a black hole in Gaza. Netanyahu finally concluded the deal in October 2011, for a variety of reasons, but it’s clear that fear of a reprise of the Arad precedent played a part in his considerations.

Shifting pendulum

The pendulum continued to swing after Shalit’s release, this time toward the other side. As in the Jibril deal, criticism subsequently intensified over the release of 1,027 Palestinian terrorists for Shalit (though before the deal was struck, opinion polls consistently showed majority public support for major concessions). The undeclared changes in the IDF’s behavior, based on lessons taken from the abduction and the deal, were seen in the subsequent confrontations in the Gaza Strip – Operation Cast Lead at the turn of 2009 (two and a half years after Shalit’s abduction) and Operation Protective Edge in 2014. The Arad affair seemed to resonate constantly in the background.

To begin with, commanding officers instructed their troops repeatedly that they must avoid being taken prisoner at all costs. In one case, a battalion commander in the Golani infantry brigade was heard hinting to his soldiers, on the eve of Operation Cast Lead, that it would be better for them to commit suicide with a grenade than to fall into Hamas’ hands alive.

Second, field commanders behaved in accordance with the “Hannibal procedure,” which permits the life of a soldier to be endangered in order to frustrate an attempt to abduct him. (Last June, Haaretz reported that Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot, who was disturbed by the use of the procedure, had recently rescinded the order.)

And third, in two cases in which Hamas abducted the bodies of soldiers during Operation Protective Edge – Staff Sgt. Oron Shaul and Lt. Hadar Goldin – the IDF quickly declared that they had been killed in action. In both cases, the declarations were based on forensic evidence, aided by opinions of the IDF Rabbinate and were agreed to by the families. But it’s clear that the IDF’s initiative in both cases was also intended to reduce the potential pressure Hamas could bring to bear on Israel.

Hamas continues to try to spread disinformation about Goldin and Shaul, hinting that they might have remained alive. Recently, the Shaul family intimated that it wishes the declaration or Oron’s death to be reconsidered, on the grounds that it was made on insufficient evidence.

The individual in charge of the indirect negotiations with Hamas for the return of the bodies, and of three Israeli civilians who crossed the border into Gaza and are being held there, Col. (res.) Lior Lotan, is a veteran of the Arad affair. As a senior officer in the elite Sayeret Matkal reconnaissance unit, Lotan led the abduction of Dirani in Lebanon, and 10 years later took part, as the deputy of Maj. Gen. (res.) Ilan Biran, in working out the Tenenbaum deal.

It’s a safe assumption that Lotan is keeping in mind the lessons of the Arad affair, with its many twists and turns, in his contacts to bring about the return of the civilians and the bodies of the soldiers from Hamas.