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Israel recovers remains of missing soldier in pre-election boost to Netanyahu

The remains of Zachary Baumel, who disappeared while fighting in Lebanon in 1982, have been returned to Israel
An undated photo of Zachary Baumel, a U.S.-born Israeli soldier missing since a 1982 tank battle against Syrian forces (Reuters)
By Daniel Hilton in Jerusalem

The remains of an Israeli soldier who disappeared during the 1982 invasion of Lebanon have been returned to his country, Israel announced on Wednesday, a moment of national significance six days before an election.

US-born Zachary Baumel went missing during the Israeli army’s battle with Syrian forces in Sultan Yacoub, a village in southeast Lebanon.

Though he and two other Israeli soldiers were reportedly captured alive, information regarding their subsequent fate has not made public until this latest announcement.

Israel, which promotes a "leave no man behind" policy in its military, places enormous importance on missing soldiers, and Baumel’s name is familiar in Israeli households.

'This is one of the most emotional moments I have experienced in all my years as prime minister'

- Benjamin Netanyahu

The military has not shared details about where the remains had been and how they had been recovered. No deal was hatched with other countries, the military insisted, though an unnamed third country was involved.

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Israel’s Channel 13 reported that Russia, close ally of the Syrian government, was that country.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu travels to Moscow on Thursday, ahead of finely poised 9 April elections.

In an interview with Lebanon’s al-Mayadeen TV, Anwar Raja, an official with pro-Syrian leftist faction the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine - General Command, said Baumel’s remains were found in a Damascus cemetery.

They were moved from Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp on the outskirts of the Syrian capital and taken to Israel via Turkey, he said.

According to Israel’s military, Baumel’s remains have been in Israel for a few days, and arrived aboard an El Al national carrier flight.

'Win-win-win situation'

"Today, we are lifting the uncertainty and closing a circle," Netanyahu said in a televised statement. "This is one of the most emotional moments I have experienced in all my years as prime minister."

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Yontan Mendel, an analyst at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute, told Middle East Eye that the return of Baumel’s remains is a boost to Netanyahu’s campaign to be re-elected.

“With one of these kinds of achievements, people can only praise the leadership and the military,” he said.

“It shows what Netanyahu wants: that Israel has quiet power, is able to do things in the Middle East, and does not compromise.”

As the Baumel case takes prominence in the media, and Netanyahu uses his platform to promote it as an Israeli victory, opponents will find it more difficult to raise criticisms or the corruption cases that have been hounding the premier, Mendel predicted.

“It’s a win-win-win situation,” he said.

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