Analysis |

Secret Burial Place, Intel Feat, and a 3rd Country: Behind the Retrieval of the Israeli Soldier's Body

Achievement is also a testimony to the extraordinary commitment Israeli society shows toward its fighters and fallen soldiers in an era of eroding solidarity

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
Prime Minister Netanyahu announces the return of Baumel's remains, Jerusalem, April 3, 2019.
Prime Minister Netanyahu announces the return of Baumel's remains, Jerusalem, April 3, 2019.Credit: AFP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The retrieval of Staff. Sgt. Zachary Baumel’s body was the climax of a 37-year effort. Israel, via its intelligence agencies, has invested much effort, millions of shekels and above all an inconceivable number of work hours for the mission of returning the remains of missing Israelis to their families. The retrieval of Baumel’s body, one of three of the missing soldiers from the Sultan Yacoub battle is a great and impressive accomplishment for the IDF, other intelligence agencies and the political echelon.

The success was achieved after many disappointments and after years in which it seemed the chances were close to zero of resolving that riddle of the troops missing from the Lebanese Bekaa Valley battle, which took place at the end of the first week of the First Lebanon War, in June 1982. Israel will continue its efforts to locate the other two missing soldiers from that battle, Yehuda Katz and Zvi Feldman. But this achievement is testimony to the extraordinary commitment Israeli society shows toward its fighters and fallen soldiers, in an era in which other aspects of social solidarity have eroded.

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On the sidelines, this political achievement of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s will certainly also be expressed at the electoral level. It seems as though the return of Baumel’s body is proof of his strong personal ties with foreign leaders.

The formal announcement by the IDF and afterwards, Netanyahu’s and Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi’s remarks reflected great excitement but provided little detail. They did not say where the body was found, how they were transferred to Israel and which third country helped complete the operation. The confidential details are still under censorship. Media mavens will apparently have to fill in the details by reading between the lines, unless Netanyahu decides to reveal further details at a joint news conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin, expected to take place in Moscow.

In the Sultan Yacoub battle, an IDF armored force was ambushed by Syrian forces while advancing to capture positions in eastern Lebanon, ahead of an anticipated cease-fire. A few tanks were hit and confiscated and according to information gathered by the IDF, prisoners were also captured, including the bodies of fallen soldiers, which were all taken to Syria.

The Israeli tanks were displayed in Damascus and one tank was even sent to Moscow and shown there years later. For years, tremendous intelligence efforts were made to locate the bodies of Baumel and Feldman, who served with the same tank crew, and also to find the body of Katz, who was wounded in another tank.

It seems the chances of making progress on retrieving these remains increased against the backdrop of the chaos in Syria during the civil war and especially after the Russians entered Syria, from September 2015. The Russians who rescued Assad’s regime, with their decision to get involved in the war, created a great bargaining position vis a vis the regime and a capability to do almost whatever they wanted in Syria. Netanyahu took care to cultivate effective ties with Putin. They had a relationship that permitted the establishment of a mechanism to prevent friction between the two countries’ air forces.

The coordination was far from perfect. Russia had its own interests in Syria and these included first and foremost stabilizing the regime, including via cooperation with Iran and Hezbollah. But the Netanyahu-Putin link helped Israel advance important understandings and apparently also helped with the issue of the missing servicemen. A few years ago Putin gave Israel a tank that had been held in Moscow. It turned out that this was not one of the two tanks where the missing troops had fought but another tank that had been hit during that same battle.

Russia hinted at what was going on behind the scenes apparently after the downing of the Ilyushin plane in September, which stirred tensions between the two countries. When Moscow sought to express how insulted it felt (blaming Israel, even though the plane had been hit by accident by a Syrian anti-aircraft missile during an Israeli attack), the spokesman off the Russian Defense Ministry had said that the army had been making a humanitarian effort to resolve an important problem of Israel’s in Syria.

Last year Israel put together a credible picture of the possible burial place, where intelligence efforts were expanded, under a veil of secrecy. In recent days a third country transferred the body to Israel. These were examined by the forensics institute at Abu Kabir, which determined that one of the bodies was Baumel’s. To date Katz’s and Feldman’s bodies have not been found but the retrieval of Baumel’s body has somewhat stirred optimism that the uncertainty regarding the other two soldiers’ fates may also be resolved.

Reservist Col. Lior Lotan once served as head of the prisoners and missing soldiers’ department in the Intelligence Corps, and later as a coordinator of prisoner negotiations for Netanyahu. Lotan told Haaretz this week that “we had many mind-wrenching moments during this period, but at no stage did the country abandon its efforts to find the missing soldiers from Sultan Yacoub.”

Loan said “our intelligence research capabilities are a powerful point. These efforts continued all the time, gradually and it was also possible to gather more and more testimony from people who participated in that battle on the enemy side. As usual, everyone provides a different version of efforts and covers the actions of others, but gradually an intelligence picture emerged that permitted us to make progress,” Lotan said.

He added that a lot of credit goes to the intelligence forces and political echelon for completing the operation and having the ability to seek help from other countries in order to retrieve Baumel’s body.

Since we are in the last week of the Knesset election campaign, we cannot completely ignore the political significance of what has taken place. The IDF announcement was issued before the press conference that former defense chiefs were planning to convene, headed by Ehud Barak, who raised tough accusations against Netanyahu over suspected corruption regarding the submarines and ship purchase scandals. The natural excitement triggered by the retrieval of Baumel’s body pushed Barak and his friends’ accusations completely out of the headlines.

And in the background,there’s the unresolved issue of the soldiers missing from Operation Protective Edge in Gaza, Lieut. Hadar Goldin and Staff-Sgt. Oron Shaul. For the four and ahalf years since that time, the families have expressed concerns that the slow handling by Neanyahu’s government of a deal to return their sons’ remains would be a repeat of Sultan Yacoub and the Ron Arad disappearance cases. A more complicated Gaza deal would involve significant Israeli concssions and the release of Palestinian prisoners, as demanded by Hamas. It doesn’t look as though Netanyahu will be able to resolve the Goldin and Shaul cases before the election takes place.

But retrieving Baumel’s body supplies him with an alternative achievement and proves to the public that the prime minister is not indifferent to the fate of missing soldiers. Furthermore, Netanyahu can say that only his experience and contacts permitted Israel to involve a third country and retrieve the body of Baumel who had been buried as an unknown person for years in enemy territory.

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