The tank, Putin, and Bibi

The tank, Putin, and Bibi

Column for JN June 24 2016 by Jenni Frazer

There is spin, there is counter-spin, and there is downright duplicity. You get to choose which is which.

Earlier this year Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu went to the Kremlin for a meeting with Russian president Vladimir Putin. Putin, it is fair to say, doesn’t have many friends in the West, so the two men have much in common.

Usually, in these kind of talks there is some sort of sweetener thrown in — perhaps to mask what is going on behind the headlines. Ostensibly Vlad and Bibi were discussing strategic understanding over military co-ordination in Syria, Moscow’s old ally.

The sweetener, in this case, was a tank. And not just any tank, but a tank which has been on display for decades in a Moscow military museum, an Israeli tank captured during the notorious battle of Sultan Yacoub in Lebanon in 1982.

Could he, Bibi ventured, have the tank back? He’d like to have it for the IDF military museum at Latrun. In the battle of Sultan Yacoub, in which 30 Israelis were killed, it wasn’t just Israeli tanks captured by Syrian forces, but three soldiers: Zacharia Baumel, Yehuda Katz and Zvi Feldman. The three, and their tank, were paraded through the streets of Damascus after their capture, and that was their last known appearance. Officially listed as Missing in Action, they have long been presumed dead, but their bodies have never been recovered.

On May 29 a triumphant prime minister made the following announcement: “I thank Russian President Vladimir Putin for acceding to my request to return to Israel the tank from the battle of Sultan Yacoub.
“To the families of MIAs Zechariah Baumel, Zvi Feldman and Yehudah Katz, there has been nothing to remember the boys by and no grave to visit for 34 years now.
“The tank is the only evidence of the battle and now it is coming back to Israel thanks to President Putin’s response to my request.” 

So what do we think about this tank? Or rather, “the” tank from the battle of Sultan Yacoub? Do we think that — as we were clearly meant to think — that it was the tank in which Baumel, Katz and Feldman had been serving, the tank which was then paraded through Damascus?

Well, more fool us. For as the prime minister’s spokesman carefully explained last week, Israel at no point claimed the tank was the one manned by the missing soldiers.

“We said it was a tank from the battle of Sultan Yacoub and evidence from the battlefield, and this is what the prime minister told the families. No one ever claimed that this was the tank manned by the three,” an official said in a statement.

The spokesman was obliged to make this weaselly statement because as soon as the tank arrived in Israel, experts took one look at it and concluded that it could not possibly have been the one in which Baumel, Katz and Feldman had served.

The tank now housed in the Latrun museum has no marks showing that it was hit; expert Danny Kriaf said that the tank that was returned “had the number 817581, while the tank of the missing [men] had another number”; and the Israeli army knew as long ago as 18 years ago that the tank in Moscow was not the one in which the missing men had served.

So did Bibi know this was the wrong tank? The jury is out. Certainly, from his words at a handover ceremony at the Moscow museum, he was still talking about it as though it were the tank run by the thee Israeli MiAs.Thanking Putin for his “warm humanitarian gesture,” Bibi vowed Israel would not rest until it also located the three soldiers.

Not known for his warm humanitarian gestures, isn’t Mr Putin. One of two things appears to have happened. Perhaps the Russian leader, searching for a sweetener, decided to give Bibi any old tank. Yeah, yeah, went the word in the Kremlin, give the Israelis this tank, we don’t need it, and they’ll never know the difference.

Or perhaps it was Bibi who wanted to bring something tangible back from his Moscow talks, and hit on the idea of the return of the tank and allowing people to believe it was the tank of the three missing men.

Either way, it was a deeply cynical episode which has hugely hurt the families of the three men, who have desperately campaigned for some clue to their fate all those years ago. It leaves a nasty taste and far from giving the families some kind of closure, it has had precisely the opposite effect.

Like I said, there is spin, and downright duplicity. You choose.

  • 21 June, 2016