Russian President Vladimir Putin with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Kremlin in Moscow on May 9, 2018. Photo: AFP/Sergei Ilnitsky
Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) speaks with then-Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Kremlin in May 2018. Photo: AFP / Sergei Ilnitsky

As Israelis head to the polls on Tuesday, two gifts to the incumbent prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, loom large. The first, which generated global condemnation, was a unilateral recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the occupied Golan Heights by US President Donald Trump. But a second and less noticed gift was the Russian-mediated return of the remains of Zechariah Baumel, an Israeli soldier killed during a 1982 battle in Lebanon.

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday announced that his troops had secured the remains of Baumel in coordination with the Syrian army. Damascus immediately denied that its forces had anything to do with the deal.

Coming on the heels of Trump’s Golan Heights decision, many saw it as another gift to Netanyahu, this time from Moscow as part of an effort to elevate his position in Israeli society amidst charges of embezzlement and misuse of public office.

“This was an operation that has been some time in the making,” said David Lesch, a prominent American historian of Syria and professor at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas.

The timing, the expert said, was deliberate: “The timing of the announcement and delivery of Baumel’s remains can be seen as Putin’s pre-election boost to Prime Minister Netanyahu.”

One-off or more

It remains to be seen whether the intervention by Russia, an ally of both Israel and Syria – which are officially at war, was a unique event.

“It’s a one-off not likely to be repeated, save for a confluence of exceptional circumstances,” said Lesch, attributing this instance to the importance Putin places on Netanyahu’s re-election.

“The combination of support for Netanyahu from both Trump and Putin, in essence his brother pseudo-authoritarians-in-arms, in the last couple of weeks, is a major part of the Israeli prime minister’s improvement in the polls that may lift his party slate and him to victory. All three have converging interests in helping to keep each other in power.”

Others, however, see the return of the remains in a much broader context, hoping that Putin will use his immense influence in Syria to address several of Israel’s security concerns – with or without Netanyahu in power.

Putin has already negotiated the return of UN peacekeepers to the Syrian south, deploying Russian military police along the border strip to keep both Islamist jihadists and Assad-allied Hezbollah fighters at bay.

Raising hopes

If the Baumel operation were to be expanded, it could lead to information on the whereabouts of several prominent Israeli soldiers, who were captured over the past four decades and are all presumably dead by now, buried somewhere between Syria and Lebanon.

Two Israeli soldiers, Tzvi Feldman and Yehud Katz, went missing with Baumel in June 1982, during the famous Battle of Sultan Yaacoub. An Israeli column was ambushed in the village of Sultan Yaacoub in Lebanon’s western Bekka Valley, 7km  from the Syrian border. The 23-year-olds were believed to have been taken prisoner by the Syrians, who reportedly took great pride in killing 18 Israeli troops in that battle.

A third prisoner, Guy Hever, is also presumably held by the Syrians, having disappeared from the Golan Heights in 1997.

Their fate and whereabouts were on the negotiating table of the now moribund Syrian-Israeli peace talks of the 1990s, held under the auspices of then-US president Bill Clinton.

Also high on the list of missing Israelis is air force officer Ron Arad, shot down over the southern Lebanese city of Sidon in October 1986. He was 28 at the time of his disappearance, and if alive, would be 61 by now. Arad was captured by the Shiite group Amal while his plane was bombing the Palestinian Liberation Organization.

He reportedly spent four years imprisoned in Iran and was returned to Lebanon in 1994. That year, his alleged captor, Moustapha al-Dirani, was abducted by the Israeli military, interrogated and tortured to reveal the whereabouts of Arad. Dirani was eventually released 10 years later by a famous German-mediated prisoner swap with Hezbollah, which is believed to have taken custody of Arad in the early 1990s.

During this period, anonymous pre-recorded phone calls were picked up by random numbers in both Lebanon and Syria, all coming from Israel, promising a financial reward for information on Arad. It was an ill-advised move, which yielded zero cooperation from the Syrians and Lebanese.

In 2003, then-prime minister Ariel Sharon revealed that an Israeli serviceman was killed on a rescue mission, trying to find Arad or his remains. An Israeli investigation committee concluded that he was killed somewhere between 1993 and 1997 and that he was buried in the Bekka Valley. In 2006, Hezbollah chief Hasan Nasrallah confirmed Arad’s death, denying any knowledge of his remains.

The remains of Israeli spy Eli Cohen, who was executed in central Damascus in May 1965, has been a serious concern for every Israeli prime minister since Levi Eshkol. He remains the top priority of Tel Aviv. Recruited by the intelligence agency Mossad because of his command of Arabic and knowledge of Arab society, Cohen was sent to Syria in February 1962 under the alias Kamel Amin Thabet. Disguised as a wealthy Syrian émigré living in Argentina, he made friends with top officials, including General Amin al-Hafez, who became president in 1963. Cohen was eventually apprehended with the help of Egyptian intelligence, given a public trial, and hung in public.

His family has been hunting for his remains since November 1965, with the latest attempt being in September 2012. All appeals by his wife and brothers have been flatly rejected by the Syrian authorities. Amin al-Hafez’s bureau chief, Munzer Mousilli, wrote a book about Cohen, saying that nobody currently knows where Cohen is buried, claiming that his remains were moved three times to avoid detection by the Israelis.

Last July, Tel Aviv celebrated the return of his wristwatch to Israel, bought at auction and presented to his widow by Mossad chief Yossi Cohen – a hint at what would happen if his remains are fully recovered.

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