Thirty-seven years ago, during the First Lebanon war, Israeli troops engaged in a fierce and bloody battle with Syrian and affiliated PLO units at Sultan Yacoub near the Syrian border.
Tank Commander Sgt. First Class Zachary Baumel (pictured) went missing, along with Zvi Feldman and Yehuda Katz.
The three were listed as MIA – missing in action. At some point, when there is no word about MIAs over the course of years, there is a presumption that they are likely dead. But there is no certainty that they are not in captivity somewhere, and there is no closure for grieving families.
Zachary’s parents, Miriam and Yonah, devoted enormous energy to searching for their son. Yonah, who traveled the world in search of information about Zachary, had prayed he might live until his son was discovered. He died ten years ago; Miriam is now almost 90.
Zachary was born in Brooklyn in 1960, and made aliyah with his family, which included an older brother and sister, when he was 10. He studied in the hesder yeshiva at Har Etzion before being called up for active duty.
The incredible part of this story – and a source of enormous pride – is that Israel never gives up on attempting to find missing soldiers.
Two years ago, as an IDF Intelligence unit dedicated to the work of searching for these long-lost soldiers began to zero in on the possibility of locating Baumel, they initiated an operation called Bittersweet Song. Many of the details of this operation remain under wraps, so as to not jeopardize on-going searches for other missing soldiers.
What became clear this past week is that Russia played a direct role in this. When it was determined that Baumel’s remains were likely in Syria, Israel requested that Russia, which has major influence there, assist in finding and securing his remains. In one version of the story, Netanyahu reached out to Putin, in another, it was Avigdor Lieberman, who is of Russian origin and was then minister of defense, who made the request of Putin. At any rate, Putin was readily agreeable.
Russia was able to pursue investigation of the matter more effectively after ISIS was driven from the area where it was suspected Baumel’s remains were to be found.
Russian defense ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov recently said that (emphasis added):
“[ISIS] terrorists suddenly attacked the Russian servicemen involved in the operation. One Russian officer was wounded. Despite that, Russia was willing to carry on with the operation.”
This is more than a bit amazing.
It is being reported, but not officially confirmed, that the remains were buried in a cemetery in the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp and that some Palestinian Arabs were involved in locating them.
Also a bit amazing, if true.
The remains were brought into Israel on Wednesday. They were accompanied by a jumpsuit with Hebrew writing on the back identifying Baumel’s tank unit and his tzitzit (knotted ritual fringes worn by religious men). This was enormously moving for those involved (as well as for many others, yours truly included). There was also a pair of shoes with IDF identification on the soles.
Said the IDF colonel in charge of this mission:
“It was an emotional moment, we couldn’t help but cry. We knew that after 37 years, we finally had the remains.”
For final positive identification, the remains then went to the Abu Kabir Forensic Institute. Here you see the forensic scientists who were involved:
Zachary’s mother and siblings (brother Shimon, below) were then notified.
On Wednesday night, Prime Minister Netanyahu announced to the nation that Baumel’s remains had been found. He called this moment one of the proudest during his time as prime minister.
“The operation to return Baumel is a consummate expression of the mutual responsibility and comradery that characterize us as a nation, an army, and a state.
“It is the payment of a moral debt to fallen IDF soldiers and their families.”
On Thursday, the prime minister traveled to Russia for quick meetings with Putin, which had been scheduled. The two spoke openly about Russia’s role in the retrieval of Baumel’s remains.
“Our soldiers together with Syrian partners established his resting place,” said Putin. “We are very happy that they will be able to give him the necessary military honors at home.” He acknowledged that this mission “was difficult for the special forces.”
The prime minister thanked him:
“When I told them [the Baumel family] about your decision and the fact that Russian soldiers performed the activities, sometimes while putting themselves at risk, their jaws dropped, and they asked me to express their deep gratitude, which is gratitude from all citizens of Israel.” (Emphasis added)
On Thursday evening, Zachary Baumel was laid to rest in the military cemetery on Har Herzl in Jerusalem, with thousands attending; the prime minister had cut short his visit with Putin in order to participate.
Zachary’s sister, Osna Haberman, said:
“All of our prayers during these 37 years went to one place and we’re here. I thought about what I would do here in this place. I can’t even embrace you. So I thought to turn to the ground and ask the land to embrace you. After a few minutes I understood that I don’t even need to ask.
“The land embraces you so strongly. And why? Because there is absolute love between the son that gave everything for the land and the land itself, and there is a perfect union here. You are together now.” (Emphasis added)
I note here that 19 sets of remains were brought to Israel in addition to those of Baumel. It was hoped that the remains of Zvi Feldman and Yehuda Katz might be among them, but this has not been the case. Our nation remains committed to continuing the search.
What is more, Russian is prepared to continue to lend assistance.
It should also be pointed out that this was a military operation and we are being told that there was no quid pro quo involved. One Russian diplomat cited indicated specifically that Russia’s help would not be coming with a “price tag” regarding the situation in Syria.
There are analysts who believe that, while Putin will not demand any specific action by Israel with regard to Syria in return for cooperation on Baumel, he does have more subtle (and totally unsurprising) expectations: that Russia’s image in the Middle East will be enhanced, that he will be seen as a key and essential player, etc.
A memorial to those who fell in the siege of Leningrad during WWII is being established in Jerusalem. While he was in Moscow, Prime Minister Netanyahu invited Putin to be the guest of honor at the ceremony marking the dedication of that memorial, to be held in May. Putin readily accepted.
All of Israel has been talking about this recovery operation. It has brought us together with a sense of pride and good feeling.
Right now this has been very important for us, for the morale of the country has been low:
It would be an understatement of major proportions to say that our campaign has not been uplifting or stimulating. It has been a source of frustration, irritation, disappointment (and downright disgust): Far too much mud-slinging and far too little genuine focus on the issues that matter.
Our election will be held this coming Tuesday, April 9. The nation will breathe a collective sigh of relief when it is over.
I do not plan to post again until after the election. And so, I want to take the time now to describe the basics of Israel’s election process:
We do not vote for individuals, but, rather, party lists. (How those lists are compiled varies with the party.)
We have a confusing multiplicity of parties registered to run. Most of them will not get into the Knesset at all.
There are 120 seats in the Knesset. When talking about the election, we refer to “mandates,” which means how many people on a given list, in order from the top, will have gained seats in the Knesset.
There is a threshold for entering the Knesset of 3.25% of the total vote, which translates to four mandates. Leaving aside the little known parties, there is a question as to whether certain well-known parties will pass the threshold. This is true, for example, with Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu.
Some parties have merged their lists to ensure they cross the threshold. (Some parties also enter into vote-sharing agreements so that votes are not lost, but we will not pursue this now.)
No single party has ever achieved 61 mandates or more, so that it would be able to govern by itself. Always, a coalition of several parties is necessary to achieve more than half the seats in the Knesset – and just 61 would be an extremely weak coalition, more is necessary for stability.
This means that the story is not over right after the election: first there is the process of forming a coalition.
After the election, the president of Israel meets with the heads of all of the parties that have passed the threshold to sit in the Knesset in order to ascertain which party head they want to form the coalition (i.e., who do they want as their prime minister).
Normally, the head of the party that received the most mandates is the one selected by the largest number of parties. But it can happen that the head of the party that came in second is selected by the most other parties.
The president then charges the party head that was selected by the largest number of other parties with the task of forming a coalition. The working assumption is that if parties that collectively have more than 60 mandates selected this party head, he or she will be able to establish a coalition. In the end, if that individual should be unable to form a coalition within a period of 42 days, the president would then charge the head of the next party with attempting to establish a government.
The head of the party that successfully puts together a coalition becomes prime minister.
Right now, the polls have Likud (Netanyahu) and Blue and White (Gantz and Lapid) in a dead heat. In one poll, Blue and White is ahead, in another poll, Likud is. These polls are not accurate enough to allow us to come to any final conclusions.
What the polls have determined across the board, however, is that the right wing bloc of parties is much stronger than the centrist-left wing bloc. That means that more parties, representing more mandates, presumably would prefer a government headed by Netanyahu.
Netanyahu is not content with this prospect, however. He is campaigning vigorously to the end in an attempt to assure that Likud will achieve the most mandates in the election, so that there is no question as to who gets to form the coalition.
What makes the current situation particularly difficult is that there are a sizeable number of parties likely to cross the threshold, but with each having only a small number of mandates. This makes it more likely that a substantial number of parties must be brought together to achieve the numbers necessary to form the coalition, and this is not an easy task. Every party stipulates demands for sitting in a coalition: Give us this ministry, establish this as a part of the government policy, etc. A great deal of bargaining must be done before it is all put together.
In some instances, it is clear that a party will go in a certain direction: the New Right of Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked is going to go with Likud. But in other instances, a party maintains independence, bargaining for the best deal and declaring no loyalty to one faction or another. Zehut headed by Moshe Feiglin is such a party.
After the election, as the process unfolds, I will be tracking this. Now, I simply hope I have provided some clarity and not made it seem even more confusing.
(It is theoretically possible that if there is difficulty in forming a coalition with a number of small parties, the two major parties might come together to form a unity government with shared power. I believe this possibility will remain in the realm of the theoretical only: I consider it exceedingly unlikely.)
I am convinced that the nation would be best served with a solidly right wing government:
A government that will, among other things, stand strong against our enemies, assert our rights to the land, and reform the process for the selection of Supreme Court justices.
This means not just a government headed by Netanyahu, but one that has a strong input from the right wing.