(April 4, 2019 / JNS)
In the world of intelligence, the saying goes, reality often exceeds the imagination, and yet the operation to return Zachary Baumel’s remains to Israel in a mission that spanned the globe can easily be considered one of the most impressive in the country’s history.
Israeli officials have long known where Baumel was buried. The matter of our missing soldiers was also raised on many occasions with foreign governments, primarily in the midst of peace talks with Syria and the Palestinians. After the Oslo Accords were signed, Yasser Arafat even transferred one of Baumel’s dog tags to Israel, but nothing more ever materialized. Syria has always said it would agree to resolve the mystery, but only parallel to receiving the Golan Heights in return, as part of a peace agreement between the countries.
A little over a year ago, the issue was again raised by then-Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman. If the reports are true that Russia was involved in the operation, we can assume that Lieberman spoke with his counterpart in the Russian defense ministry, Sergei Shoigu. It appears that this time the response was different, and the Russians agreed to lend a hand. Either way, Israeli officials began working vigorously. In a series of intelligence operations, the Military Intelligence Directorate (Aman) and Mossad pinpointed Baumel’s exact resting place. All the information was gathered into a classified file under the code name “Operation Bittersweet Song.”
According to the reports, we can assume Israel and Russia exploited the fact that Syria was mired in a civil war. Syrian President Bashar Assad, focused almost entirely on his own survival in recent years, couldn’t have prevented Russia from doing as it pleased on Syrian soil even if he had wanted to because Moscow had rescued his regime. We can also assume that an operation of this sort is managed at the highest levels on both sides, spearheaded by the respective army chiefs of staff (first Israel Defense Forces’ Gadi Eizenkot and then Aviv Kochavi in Israel, and Valery Gerasimov in Russia). Assuming this was the case, the operation also survived the diplomatic crisis between Israel and Russia following the downing of a Russian military plane last September, for which Russia explicitly blamed Israel.
The Russian defense ministry spokesman confirmed that Russian solider worked on the matter for months. In retrospect, it sounds simple. But Russia did something that many countries likely wouldn’t have: put its own people in harm’s way for another country’s humanitarian cause. If this is what happened, it means that Russian soldiers were the ones to carry out, over a significant period of time, the physical search for Baumel’s remains. Once the green light was given, the body was flown to a third country and from there—after an IDF team conducted DNA tests—it was flown to Israel aboard an El Al airplane.
In Israel on Wednesday, officials stressed that nothing was given in exchange for Baumel’s return. It’s safe to assume that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, during his short visit to Moscow on Thursday, will heap praise on his Russian hosts, although it would be nice if he brought along Lieberman and Eizenkot—the two people who laid the foundations for the momentous operation. Netanyahu should also make further use of the mechanism that has been established, alongside crucial regional issues, to locate the remains of the other soldiers that went missing during the Sultan Yacoub battle—Yehuda Katz and Tzvi Feldman—as well as Israeli Air Force navigator Ron Arad, whose remains are believed to still be in Lebanon.
Beyond the enormous operational drama and personal story that has now been closed with Baumel’s return home, this chapter also provides a unique lesson about Israel. There are very few countries in the world, if any, who after 37 years would continue searching for their missing soldiers, let alone jeopardize intelligence assets in the process. Israel proves time and again that it is extraordinary and doesn’t spare any effort to solve even the most daunting mysteries. This won’t bring the dead back to life, but it will give their families a burial place over which to mourn, and the soldiers who are currently serving the knowledge that if heaven forbid something were to happen, the country would turn over every stone for them.
Yoav Limor is a veteran Israeli journalist and columnist for Israel Hayom.