The skeleton key
Chances of finding out what really happened to Ron Arad are slowly fading. Defense establishment believes Iran's protecting the one man who may have new information and they're not optimistic. Only a handful of people know what happened, they say, and they will do whatever they can so we never find out
A. is the Mossad's outgoing intelligence chief. He is also the man who for the past few years has been heading Israel's efforts – its last ditch efforts one could say – to find any sliver of information which could lead to missing Israeli Air Force navigator Ron Arad.
The Mossad's intelligence division already knows everything that the latest Hizbullah report on Arad – promised as part of the recently signed prisoner exchange deal, meant to secure the return of POWs Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser – is going to say.
The Mossad formed its MIA and POW department back in 1992, after then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin became infuriated in view of what he called the organization's lack of real effort to locate and retrieve Arad. Since its inception, the department has gone to immense lengths to locate Arad, often working with foreign intelligence agencies, but in vain. There are no more leads to follow, no more information to analyze. The only thing left now is a great sense of frustration and regret.
However, sources familiar with the Mossad's material on Arad, and the material held by its Military Intelligence counterpart, disagree. There is one man who holds all the answers, they say. The problem is that he is in Iran; and since the Iranian authorities know his is wanted in connection with the Arad case, they are doing all they can to prevent Israel from getting to him.
Former Iranian Revolutionary Guard General Mustafa Khaksars Kharroudi, who commanded the Guard in Lebanon at the time of Arad's disappearance, is a savvy, seasoned intelligence operative, a veteran of the resistance movement which put the Grand Ayatollah Khomeini in power. If anyone can shed any kind of light on Arad's case, he can. Iran is well aware of the importance and sensitivity the Ron Arad case has in Israel; and is doing everything in its power to cover up any trace connecting Arad's disappearance to the general.
The intelligence community is geared to immediately investigate any new lead in the Arad case; but everybody knows that the deal signed with Hizbullah has effectively brought Operation Body Heat – as it was dubbed – to its end.
Once the Regev and Goldwasser deal became a matter of fact, some have wondered whether or not this was the right time to ask the chief military rabbi to look into the possibility of declaring Ron Arad – who has been MIA for 22 years – a fallen soldier whose burial site is unknown.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, however, have voiced their objection to the move, citing three reasons: First – unlike the Regev and Goldwasser case, in which Israel was presented with unequivocal medical evidence of their condition – there is no real information indicating Arad is no longer alive. Second – the State's attempt to have Zvi Feldman, Yehuda Katz and Zecharia Baumel, who have been MIA since the 1982 Battle of Sultan Yacoub, declared as soldiers killed in action was crushed by the High Court; and third – the government is likely to face excruciating public criticism if it tries to turn to the military rabbi on the matter.
The Israeli intelligence community has little hope that the awaited Hizbullah report will provide any new information. It is abundantly clear that if Hizbullah would have been able to obtain any concrete information about Arad's fate or whereabouts, it would not have hesitated to use it as a bargaining chip. Israel believes that Hizbullah Secretary-General Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah's statement that Arad is dead is based on circumstantial rather than physical evidence. As far at the Israeli intelligence community in concerned, unless such physical findings are produced, the working assumption is that Ron Arad is still alive.
Makings of a mystery
Ron Arad's fighter jet went down in enemy territory on October 16, 1986. He was captured by the Lebanese Shiite militia Amal and held by its head of security, Mustafa Dirani. Amal Leader Nabia Beri had Dirani take pictures and a video of Arad, as well as make him write letters in English. Some of the letters and photos made their way to Israel and to Arad's family via a third party.
Once Israel established that the letters and photos were authentic, the negotiations with Amal began. Israel used the services of a third-party mediator nicknamed "the tourist," who met with Dirani. According to the initial agreement, Israel was supposed to provide a sign of good faith to Amal in exchange for the footage of Arad. These preliminary steps were supposed to be the dress rehearsal for the actual prisoner exchange deal.
The deal was given the green light and another meeting with the mediator was set, when Uri Lubrani – who was appointed by then-Defense Minister Rabin to head the negotiations – discovered that Nabia Beri wanted to strengthen his ties with the PLO by making Israel release dozens of Palestinian prisoners as part of the deal. Beri's list included several senior PLO operatives, defined by Israel as having "blood on their hands." Rabin refused, ordering the Israeli delegate continue the negotiations at first, and later informing him he was to abort his mission. Israel at that point had verified Arad's identity beyond doubt, and the matter of the video was set aside, forgotten.
The video did not resurface until September 2006, when the Lebanese network LBC aired it. The Arad family was elated, unaware that Israel had a chance to get its hands on it 19 years earlier.
In 2004, Israel and Hizbullah signed a prisoner exchange deal in which the bodies of IDF soldiers Benny Avraham, Adi Avitan and Omar Souad were retuned to Israel, along with Israeli businessman Elchanan Tannenbaum in return for 435 prisoners held by Israel, including Mustafa Dirani and Abdul-Karim Obeid. As part of the agreement, Hizbullah was supposed to supply Israel with new information about Arad's fate, in order to secure the release of Samir Kuntar.
'No stone left unturned'
Israel has no doubt that Hizbullah made a considerable effort to locate Arad, reportedly going as far as to ask Germany – which has been acting at the mediator in the negotiations to retrieve Arad – to supply it with state-of-the-art ground density measuring equipment in an effort to discover any unknown graves.
Hizbullah was able to transfer some new bone relics to Israel for identification in 1996, but those failed to match Arad's DNA profile, as complied by the defense establishment after taking a blood sample from his mother.
Hizbullah then launched extensive investigations in Syria and Lebanon, but those came up empty as well. The organization's inability to find any information regarding Arad, said sources in the defense establishment, cast significant doubts as to the ongoing assumption that the missing aviator is being held by either the organization or its Iranian patrons.
Hizbullah's failed efforts indicate three possibilities: The first – The theory suggesting Dirani "sold" Arad to the Iranians is false; the second – Hizbullah knows where Arad is, but is lying in order to protect Iran; and the third – Iran has managed to stage a monumental intelligence feat and smuggle Arad out of Lebanon unbeknown to Hizbullah. The latter is highly unlikely.
"No single man has ever been sought after so extensively in the history of mankind," a senior Mossad officer familiar with Arad's case told Yedioth Ahronoth. "No stone has been left unturned, no source left untapped, a bribe unpaid and a lead unchecked. All led to disappointments. We're made zero progress trying to solve this tragic mystery."
But have we really left no stone unturned? Some might say there is a proverbial rock we have yet to look under: Operation Poisonous Sting – otherwise known as the kidnapping of Mustafa Dirani.
A bound, blindfolded Dirani was brought to a classified Military Intelligence interrogation facility, run by MI Unit 504 and dubbed Camp 1391, in 1994. Dirani claimed to have been held in dire conditions for weeks, saying he was deprived of sleep, tied up and abused for a considerable amount of that time.
His interrogation soon became the talk of the intelligence community. The head of Unit 504 took over the case and personally interrogated his famous prisoner. The interrogation team was made up of senior intelligence officers reported to then-Director of Military Intelligence Amos Gilad. Rumor has it that Dirani dreaded Gilad much more than he did any of his interrogators.
The unit and its commanders held a briefing summarizing the progress made in the interrogation. Each briefing's results were then relayed to the prime minister. The team, which later received a special commendation, believed they were close to breaking Dirani; that any minute now he will crack and solve the puzzle.
According to Dirani's testimony, Arad was held in an Amal safehouse in a village near Beirut. On May 4, 1988, the IDF raided the adjacent village of Maidun. Arad's guards – believing IDF forces were coming their way – fled the village, leaving Arad under lock and key. When the Iranian Revolutionary Guards arrived, all they had to do was simply take him with them. The interrogating officers did not believe Dirani. The assumption was that he had reached an agreement with the Iranians to turn the safehouse into a pickup point.
Military Intelligence then launched a series of operations trying to locate the owner of the safehouse, but to no avail. Dirani withstood all his interrogations and divulged nothing. Military Intelligence than began intercepting messages passed within the detention facility between Dirani and another high-profile prisoner – Sheik Abdul-Karim Obeid, who was abducted in 1989. Dirani, they discovered, saw Obeid as a religious authority figure. The messages – hidden by Dirani under rocks in the prison courtyard – were xeroxed, put back for Obeid to find and then analyzed.
Dirani, however, seemed to have anticipated that option and wrote his notes in code. Though deciphered, the messages added no real information on Arad's whereabouts or fate.
Iranian General Ali Riza Ascari, believed to be Dirani's contact when the latter negotiated Arad's transfer to the Revolutionary Guards, defected to the US in 2007. He too claimed to have no knowledge of Arad's whereabouts or fate, undermining yet again the Israeli belief that Iran was holding the missing aviator.
Israel still believes Ascari is lying. The transfer, says Military Intelligence, took place during Ascari's first days as commander, just as the infamous General Khaksars was retiring.
The inevitable conclusions
To date, the Israeli intelligence community has no information suggesting Ron Arad is being held by Iran; nor has it been able to ascertain any information regarding Arad's whereabouts since May of 1988. They have no information suggesting he is alive, nor do they have any evidence to the contrary.
Unfortunately, said a senior intelligence officer, that could only mean one thing: "I'm afraid that the only way to explain the fact that we haven't been able to find him, is that he is no longer alive. If he were alive we would have gotten to him. A live prisoner eventually has a large circle of people around him; guards, people who bring him food, the drivers transporting him from one hideout to another.
"We would have found one of those people. If Ron Arad is dead, there are only a handful of people that really know what happened. They, I assure you, have taken the necessary steps so we will never find out."