BONN (Jun. 28)
Missing Israeli air force navigator Ron Arad was held until March 1989 in a Beirut prison under Syrian supervision, according to a special report aired Monday night on German television.
The televised report based its findings on a “top-secret” document found by an Israeli professor, Michael Wolfson, whose research led him to the files of the Stasi, the secret service of the former East German state.
As part of his work, Wolfson also studied correspondence exchanged between the Stasi and the KGB, the former Soviet Union’s intelligence service.
The document quoted a KGB report that the missing navigator, along with other Israeli MIAs, was to be part of a prisoner swap between the former Soviet Union and Israel.
They were to be exchanged for Soviet spies Marcus Klingberg and Shabtai Kalmanovitch, who were held in Israel, and possibly also for Nelson Mandela, who was still in a South African prison at the time.
Wolfson found the document among the private archives of Erich Milke, 85, the former head of the Stasi who is now in a Berlin prison.
The document, dated March 3, 1989, said that Arad was held “at present” in a West Beirut prison operated by the Shi’ite Amal militia “under Syrian supervision.”
Arad bailed out from a Phantom jet over Lebanon in 1986 and was believed to have been held by pro-Iranian troops in Lebanon. The last time any message was received that he was alive was in October 1987.
There have been sporadic reports that he was subsequently transferred to captivity in Iran.
As part of its ongoing negotiations with the Palestine Liberation Organization, Israel has submitted repeated requests for information about Arad’s whereabouts.
SHEIK KIDNAPPING MAY HAVE ABORTED EXCHANGE
Until now, it was believed that Arad was kidnapped before March 1989 from the Amal prison by Shi’ite Muslim guerrilla leader Mustafa Dirani, who defected at the time to the ranks of the Islamic fundamentalist Hezbollah movement.
There has been no word of Arad’s where abouts since the time he was handed over to Hezbollah.
Dirani was kidnapped May 21 from his home in eastern Lebanon by a team of Israeli commandos. He is still in the hands of Israeli officials, who had hoped Dirani would provide information about Arad.
According to the German television program, efforts for the comprehensive prison exchange deal began in 1987, partly through the mediation efforts of East German lawyer Wolfgang Vogel and Israeli lawyer Amnon Zichroni.
But the program reported that those efforts were aborted in the summer of 1989, following the kidnapping of another Hezbollah leader, Sheik Abdul Karim Obeid, who was spirited away from Lebanon to Israel in July of that year.
The Syrians, who were reportedly ready at first to help in the prisoner exchange, pulled out of the negotiations, saying the kidnapping had changed the atmosphere, according to the television report.
Both Vogel and Zichroni, who were interviewed in the program, refused to go into details.
Vogel said the matter was still very delicate because of ongoing negotiations regarding Arad’s fate.
In Israel, several officials stated Monday that there was nothing new in the documents that Wolfson has unearthed.
But Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, speaking after the German television program aired, implied that Israel may have missed some opportunities to learn more about Arad and secure his freedom.
According to a report Tuesday in the Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot, Israeli negotiators have sidestepped the issue of Arad in their talks with Syria, which is widely believed to have information regarding the missing airman.
Maj. Gen. Herzl Bodinger, commander of the Israeli air force, said that nothing he knew of the investigations into Arad’s fate bore out the latest report.
Speaking at a news conference regarding Air Force Day, which was to be marked Thursday, Bodinger stated his conviction that Arad is still alive and is being held by a group under Iranian control.
He noted that the interrogation of Dirani was continuing, and he added that Dirani had been the last person to hold Arad on Lebanese territory.
(Contributing to this report was JTA correspondent Dvorah Getzler in Jerusalem.)