Every Israeli knows the name Ron Arad.
As is often the case with the Mossad (Israel's CIA), their recent mission sounds like something right out of a spy thriller. A team of male and female agents embarked on a wide-ranging mission last month to find out what happened to Israeli Air Force Officer Ron Arad in 1986 after he bailed out over southern Lebanon and was captured by terrorists.
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett announced the action on Monday during his address to the winter session of the Knesset. Bennett said he couldn't reveal much at the time other than, "It was a complex, widescale operation."
By Tuesday, more details had surfaced. Mossad agents had a corpse in northern Lebanon exhumed, and a DNA sample was obtained. Results of the testing—whether or not it was Arad—have not been released.
The most daring part of the mission (from what we know so far) was that the Mossad agents kidnapped an Iranian general out of Syria. They took him to some undisclosed location in Africa and interrogated him about Arad's whereabouts. They later released him.
Arad ejected from his plane while on a mission in southern Lebanon in 1986. Israeli intelligence believes he was taken captive by the Shiite Amal movement, then handed over to Iran. He was shuttled back and forth between Iran to Lebanon until May 1988, when communications (photos and letters) went silent.
The assumption is that Arad died, but the circumstances, location, and timing remain a mystery. Rumors circulate he died while trying to escape: he was killed by his captors; he died from lack of medical treatment; he's buried near Beirut; his burial site is unknown. Unlike America and the recent fiasco in Afghanistan, Israel never leaves one of its sons (or daughters) behind. Even though Arad has been MIA since 1986, it's still fresh for Israelis. Every one of our soldiers deserves to come home.
Israelis have returned thousands of living POW terrorists just to get back the bodies of IDF soldiers that fell in battle. We value our dead soldiers more than our enemies value their living citizens—they use them as human shields hoping that some of them die and can be used for propaganda.
While Israeli news media initially reported the operation was a "failure" according to sources and that the prime minister had only revealed the mission for political gain, by Tuesday, the prime minister's office and the Mossad chief were both insisting the operation was "mission accomplished." Mossad chief David Barnea said he asked Bennett to share the mission with the Knesset and the public.
"The praise and recognition for the Mossad sacrificing to return Arad and other captives and MIAs was important for members of the organization, along with the praise for soldiers," Barnea said. Another "senior intelligence source" emphasized, "the Mossad achieved its mission."
An extra bit of intrigue is the speculation that has sprung up that the mission disclosure was actually a veiled message to Iran. Last week a would-be terror attack or assassination attempt (depending on who you talk to) was thwarted in Cyprus.
An Azerbaijani hitman with a Russian passport flew into the Turkish side of Cyprus, crossed the island by bicycle, and started casing Israeli businessmen, including billionaire Teddy Sagi. The Israeli government on Monday claimed it was an "Iranian terror" plot against Israeli citizens abroad, not any one person in particular (though Sagi ran for his life evidently).
Here's where it gets interesting. Iran and Israel have been in an escalating shadow war for the last couple of years. Iran could have been looking to retaliate for the Mossad kidnapping (temporarily) one of their top guys by roughing up or even murdering an Israeli rich guy in Cyprus. Perhaps Bennett was subtly signaling to Iran—"easy there, fellas"—we aren't escalating anything, just doing spy stuff. And besides, we returned your general safe and sound.