A Mossad operation to discover information about the whereabouts of IDF soldier Ron Arad, who has been missing since 1988 — touted Monday by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett — was a failure, the head of Israel’s spy agency reportedly said.
“It was a courageous, daring, complex operation, but it was a failure. We failed,” Mossad chief David Barnea was quoted by Channel 12 as saying in an internal meeting.
“It was better not to publicize it. There was unfortunately no breakthrough here,” the outlet also quoted an unnamed defense official as saying.
Channel 13 news quoted an official as saying Bennett “made political use of a sensitive operation.”
During his speech at the opening of the Knesset’s winter session, Bennett revealed that Mossad agents recently went on a mission to uncover the whereabouts of Arad, the Israeli Air Force navigator who was captured in 1986 and was last heard from in 1988.
“It was a complex, widescale operation. That’s all that can be said right now,” Bennett told the Knesset plenum. “We made further efforts on the path to understanding Ron’s fate.”
Bennett said that the operation, involving male and female Mossad agents, took place last month in an effort to discover what happened to Arad, who is presumed dead.
Following the Monday reports criticizing Bennett for revealing the operation, the Prime Minister’s Office released a statement describing it as a “successful operation carried out while meeting exceptional operational objectives.”
“Bringing the information to the Knesset members and the general public was of value, expressing the great effort and commitment to return our sons to their borders, even many years after they were captured by the enemy. Any other dissemination of information is false,” a statement read.
Arad bailed out of his plane during an operation in southern Lebanon in 1986. Israel believes he was captured by the Shiite Amal movement before being handed over to Iran, and moved from Lebanon to Iran and then back again.
Several signs of life were received in the first two years of his incarceration, including photos and letters, the last of which was sent on May 5, 1988.
Arad has long been assumed to have died many years ago, although intelligence reports have differed as to the circumstances, timing and location of his death.
In 2016, a report indicated that Arad was killed and buried in 1988 near Beirut. But a 2004 IDF commission determined Arad had died in the 1990s after being denied medical treatment.
In 2006, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said the group believed Arad was dead and his burial site unknown, and in 2008, German negotiator Gerhard Konrad told Israel that Hezbollah said Arad died during a 1988 escape attempt.
Ronen Merav, a close friend of Arad — who would have turned 63 this year — told Army Radio on Monday that he was thankful that Israel has “not rested and is continuing to search for Ron.” Merav said such activity has been going on for many years, “unfortunately with little success. I hope that Ron Arad can hear that we are continuing to search for him.”
Speaking on Monday, Bennett personally thanked Mossad personnel — on behalf of Arad’s wife, Tami, and daughter, Yuval, as well — for their efforts, and for “their dedication and their commitment and the brotherhood of warriors, even after all these years.”
The prime minister said that the return of captives “is a Jewish value that has become one of the holiest values of the State of Israel.” He noted that continuing to search for news of Arad after more than three decades is “the kind of thing that looks strange, and perhaps a little extreme for those who look at the State of Israel from outside. But this is what defines us and sets us apart.”
Bennett vowed to “continue to act to return all our boys home, wherever they may be.”
In 2018, Mossad operatives recovered a wristwatch that had belonged to Israeli spy Eli Cohen, who was executed in Syria in 1965 and whose body has never been recovered.
Amy Spiro contributed to this report.