On Thursday evening, tens of thousands of Israelis, from all walks of life and all shades of opinion, gathered in the Rabin Square in Tel Aviv - often the venue of dramatic and divisive events in our political history: but this was a vigil, not a protest, and all who came there did so because their hearts were grieving with three families, those of Gil'ad Shalit (abducted by the Hamas in raid into Israeli territory on June 25, 2006); and of Ehud - "Udi" - Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, the two reservists who were carried over into Lebanon by Hizbullah during the murderous raid of July 12, which ignited the second Lebanon War. The singers, the speakers, the family members who addressed the participants, called for the Hamas and Hizbullah to release the three young men; on the Israeli Government, to keep this at the top of its list of priorities; and on the international community, to all that can be done to bring pressure to bear so as to secure the release.
But what could be done, when the past history of such cases has taught us, in the most brutal fashion, that we are not dealing with people who act within the acceptable norms of behavior, on the battlefield or elsewhere? A fourth name, not mentioned (sadly) on the posters and in the advertisements which convened the rally, nevertheless hovered over everyone's heads like a dark cloud: that of Ron Arad, the Air Force navigator who was captured in Lebanon more than twenty years ago, traded by one faction over to Hizbullah and Iran, and held ever since (if, and the doubts are painful, he is still alive) without the slightest sign of life ever allowed by the Iranians to reach his family, until Tehran's full demands are met. Again and again, emissaries at the highest levels went to Iran; again and again they were rebuffed, with Iran using the story of the four Iranian diplomats who disappeared in Beirut in 1982 (and are known to have been murdered and thrown in shallow graves by Christian militiamen) to fend off all unwanted appeals.
There is a link, in fact, between Arad's fate and the present crisis. In the previous deal with Hizbullah, mediated by the Germans, Israel secured the release of a corrupt and venal man, Col. (res.) Elhanan Tenenbaum - who fell on hard times, was lured out of Israel by an illicit business proposition, abducted elsewhere, and brought to Lebanon, but there were reasons why it was important to gain his freedom - as well as the return of the bodies of the three soldiers taken in a Hizbullah raid on October 9, 2000. In return, Lebanese, Palestinian and other Arab prisoners were released: but not the man Nasrallah wanted most, Samir Quntar, a Lebanese "hero" who in the service of a Palestinian terror group, during a raid on Nahariyyah, smashed the scull of a four year old girl with a rock, and was sentenced to life in prison. The Ariel Sharon government, at the time, offered a "Stage B" exchange - some solid information about Ron Arad, in return for the release of Quntar and a few others with "blood on their hands": but no news came from Iran, and Quntar remained in jail. Hence Nasrallah's decision to hasten things up by adding new "cards" to his deck.
The list of Israeli POW/MIAs - an evocative term, surely, for Americans, who faced the terrible decision to leave a significant number behind in Vietnam - is actually longer. It includes:
* Two soldiers, in recent years (and perhaps some of the civilians who disappeared altogether during the same period) who left their homes but never got to their bases, and whose fate is unaccounted for - and may be held by hostile elements;
* The three members of a tank crew from the battle of Sultan Ya'akub in 1982, generally believed to have been killed in action and buried by the Syrians (who are using the exact location as a bargaining chip , possibly abducted (to Syria?) - whose families cling to the hope, and to the rumors and manipulations by clairvoyants and their likes, that they are still alive;
* A dozen or so - apparently killed in action from 1948 till 1973 - whom the IDF still seeks to bring to burial.
Still, at this stage, it is the three, or hopefully the four (with Arad) whose fate is under active negotiations, despite strenuous denials that this is indeed what is happening (officially, Israel still seeks an unconditional release of Shalit, Goldwasser and Regev). The prospects are mixed:
1. In the case of Shalit, despite the hard line taken by Khalid Mash'al (in the service of the Syrians' bid to prove their centrality in the region), there is hope for a deal with the local Palestinian leadership, once the problematic questions of "sequences and appearances" are resolved. Israeli military pressure, and the growing impact of the international measures to isolate Hamas, are taking their toll, and voices are raised even from within Hamas calling for a practical solution (coupled with a prolonged hudna, ceasefire, and an end to the Qassam launches, in return for an Israeli commitment to desist from the air strikes and ground raids in Gaza). Moreover, Egypt - which still has considerable leverage in Gaza, if not in Damascus - is actively engaged and eager to promote, or even impose, a solution.
2. Vis-à-vis Hizbullah, on the other hand, the situation is bleak, and indeed no indications have leaked as to the soldiers condition (The UN Secretary-General, and Jessie Jackson, too, failed to go beyond platitudes). Perhaps pressure on an element close to Hizbullah in Lebanon - the Christian faction of Michel Aoun - may yield results. In any case, as the international community pressures Israel to give up - and lift the siege on Lebanon - it would be legitimate for Israel to require, in return, that other possible levers should be brought to bear, or else we might face once again a prolonged and painful crisis.