JERUSALEM– In a joint operation with Russian forces, Israel recovered the remains of Sgt. First Class Zachary Baumel, a Brooklyn-born Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldier missing in action in Lebanon for almost 37 years.
Baumel was declared missing in action in June 1982 during the first week of the Lebanon War, after the brutal battle of Sultan Yaaqub. He disappeared at the same time as Yehuda Katz and Zvi Feldman, two soldiers who remain MIA.
Baumel’s remains were recovered by Russian troops operating in Syria, following information acquired by Israeli military intelligence in an operation named “Bittersweet Song,” which came at the culmination of decades of Israeli efforts to repatriate the missing fighters.
Netanyahu flew to Moscow on Thursday, appearing at a joint press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who said that, “Russian army soldiers found the body in coordination with the Syrian military.”
Putin said the operation “was difficult for the special forces.”
“Two years ago,” Netanyahu said, “I asked you to help us find the bodies of missing Israeli soldiers, and you responded in the affirmative. I want to thank you, my friend, for what you have done.”
Baruch Vider, a fighter in the same tank company Baumel served in, who today heads a Jewish seminary near the Western Wall, told an Israeli radio interviewer that he burst into tears when he received the news.
Remembering the battle, he said Baumel “stopped Syrian forces coming from the north.”
“We’re now 60,” he said. “We were 23 then.” He told the radio program that in 2016, when Russia returned to Israel an IDF tank used during the Lebanon war, he took his children to see it.
For Israelis, Baumel, Feldan and Katz have become household names synonymous with heroism and sacrifice.
For precisely that reason, the announcement’s timing, after decades of frustrated hope, and Netanyahu’s highly publicized visit to Moscow, raised immediate questions about the political advantage the embattled prime minister hoped to gain. He is in the midst of a hard fought campaign for reelection April 9 while facing indictment on several corruption charges.
Benny Gantz, Netanyahu’s top rival and a former Israeli army chief of staff, said in a radio interview Thursday morning that he was "glad Netanyahu is using this for a political spin, but I'm much gladder that Zachary Baumel has returned to the grave in Israel and to his family.”
Netanyahu’s party, the Likud, retorted with: “On the morning when the nation is coming together for the news of his [Baumel's] return, Gantz says bringing Baumel back is a political spin–there is no limit to the lowly discourse, he should be ashamed of himself.”
In a statement, the Israeli army said “a protracted effort by the Israeli intelligence community and the MIA Allocation Team” resulting in “a series of operations over the past few months led by the IDF Military Intelligence Directorate that brought about the location and recovery of Sergeant First Class Zachary Baumel.”
In Moscow, Putin ceremonially turned a coffin, apparently containing Baumel’s effects, over to Netanyahu. Baumel’s remains, along with those of about a dozen other people, who have not been identified, arrived in Israel from Russia in the past week.
Israeli army spokesman Brig. Gen. Ronen Manelis did not specify where Baumel had been buried all these years, but there are hints he may not have been moved after his death and interment in a dry environment.
Baumel, a religious Jew and a tank commander, was found in his tanker’s jumpsuit, with his ritual shawl, with its telltale tassels, by his side.
In a videotaped interview released by the Israeli army, “Col. A,” head of the Missing and Captured Soldiers Military Intelligence Directorate, who commanded the recovery mission, described viewing the remarkably well-preserved remains for the first time, apparently in Russia, including the uniform’s Hebrew lettering. “When we identified the IDF seal on his shoes,” he said, “emotion overtook us, and we could not hold back our tears.”
Last September, Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said that a Russian soldier was wounded in a search operation for the MIA Israeli troops.
“Terrorists suddenly attacked the Russian servicemen involved in the operation. One Russian officer was wounded. Despite that, Russia was willing to carry on,” Konashenkov said.
“Israel appealed to Russia with a request for help finding the remains of Israeli servicemen located at specific coordinates in Syria. The search was organized after Russia agreed to the operation with our Syrian partners,” he said, referring to the government of Syrian strongman Bashar Assad, propped up by Russia in the final years of a long and brutal civil war.
Syria was the occupying power in Lebanon in the early 1980s, and there have long been rumors missing Israelis had been buried in Damascus’ old Jewish cemetery.
Last May, a spokesman for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine claimed that “ISIS terrorists excavated graves in the Jewish cemetery of Damascus.”
Manelis emphasized that Baumel’s body had been recovered in “an operational mission carried out by Military Intelligence,” and there was no prisoner or MIA exchange.
“This is a repayment of a moral debt to the fallen soldiers of the IDF, a repayment of a moral debt to their families,” Netanyahu said at the Moscow press conference, calling it “one of the most moving moments in all my years as prime minister.”
On Wednesday, he said the nation had “invested vast efforts in solving the riddle of his fate and those of his two comrades from that battle, Zvi Feldman and Yehuda Katz.”
Baumel will be buried on Thursday in Jerusalem.
The absence of any American contribution to the recovery of an American-Israeli dual national long missing in Syria, where the U.S. has troops, was hinted by former United States Ambassador Dan Shapiro, who tweeted, “When I started my first gov't job in 1993, Reps. Lee Hamilton (my boss) & Ben Gilman of HFAC were engaged in efforts to help locate the bodies of Zachary Baumel & his fellow soldiers.”
In a tweet, United States Ambassador to Israel David Friedman said that, “For many years we prayed for the safe return of Zachary Baumel and his comrades who fell in the 1982 Lebanon War. Today, the remains of Zachary, an American and Israeli citizen, are finally back with his family. Welcome home, Zachary, and Rest in Peace.”
Col. A, the mission commander, said “we are talking about 37 years, and the IDF and the State of Israel did not give up.”
Netanyahu, who celebrated the tenth anniversary of his prime ministership this week, is in a tight race for reelection.
In the frenzied finale to the campaign, in which he is portraying himself as the only man capable of presenting Israel’s case to the world. Netanyahu met in Washington with U.S. President Donald Trump, where the two announced American recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, a Syrian territory seized by Israel during the 1967 Six Day War. Netanyahu then hosted Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro in Jerusalem.
At the end of the ugliest campaign in Israeli history, in which Netanyahu has without evidence accused Gantz of concealing a sex-tape hacked by Iran, siding “with the Arabs,” and mourning the deaths of Islamist militants killed in fighting with Israel, analysts did not put it past Netanyahu to use a dead soldier’s body for political gain.
Haaretz political analyst Yossi Verter wrote that “the timing of the return of Sultan Yaaqub missing soldier Zachary Baumel’s remains, six days before the polls open, can’t be a coincidence.”
“There are no such coincidences,” he wrote. “Just as the American recognition of Israel sovereignty over the Golan Heights didn’t emerge from nowhere. Everything was planned and perfectly timed.”