Russian soldiers found remains of Israeli soldier missing since 1982 in Syria, Vladimir Putin says

Sergeant First Class Zachary Baumel had been missing for nearly 40 years

epa07484223 Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) meet in the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, 04 April 2019. Benjamin Netanyahu is on a working visit to Russia.  EPA/ALEXANDER ZEMLIANICHENKO / POOL
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Russia found and identified the remains of an Israeli soldier missing for 30 years since being captured in Lebanon, in what is likely to be a major boost for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu just days ahead of a decisive election.

Mr Netanyahu landed in Moscow on Thursday to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Facing charges of corruption at home, Mr Netanyahu is battling to remain prime minister and has used security and his diplomatic profile as a means of bolstering his credentials.

Israel announced the recovery of the remains of Zachary Baumel, who went missing in 1982 during a battle with Syrian forces in southern Lebanon, on Wednesday.

The return of soldiers' remains is an important issue for Israelis, and reports that various militias and factions were searching cemeteries around Damascus last May sparked eager attention.

Moscow, a key backer of embattled Syrian President Bashar Al Assad, also has close relations with Israel.

"Our soldiers together with Syrian partners established his resting place. We are very happy that they will be able to give him the necessary military honours at home," Mr Putin was quoted as saying.
Mr Netanyahu said that he had asked Mr Putin for his help finding Baumel's remains two years ago.

The Israeli prime minister said Baumel would be burried in Israel on Thursday evening.

Russian defence ministry revealed last September that it was assisting the search for the remains of Israeli soldiers in Syria.

“Israel appealed to Russia with a request for help finding the remains of Israeli servicemen located at specific coordinates in Syria. The search was organised after Russia agreed to the operation with our Syrian partners,” defence ministry spokesman Maj Gen Igor Konashenkov said.

"This special search operation was conducted in a combat area controlled by ISIS," he said. "Terrorists suddenly attacked the Russian servicemen involved in the operation. One Russian officer was wounded. Despite that, Russia was willing to carry on with the operation."
He gave no details of where or when the operation took place.

But when a Russian aircraft was accidentally downed by Syrian air defences shortly after Maj Gen Konashenkov’s statement, during an Israeli raid near northern Syria, Moscow held Tel Aviv responsible. The incident led to a rift between Russia and Israel, relations cooled and reports suggest the search ground to a halt.

Mr Netanyahu and Mr Putin patched things up, partly as Tel Aviv sees Moscow as being crucial to their demands that Iran is pushed back from the Syrian-Israel border or out of Syria completely.

Last May, the Associated Press quoted an official with the pro-regime Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC) who said that before ISIS had taken over Yarmouk Palestinian Refugee camp near Damascus, insurgent groups had been searching for the remains of missing Israeli servicemen.

Anwar Raja, the PFLP-GC official, said the groups had excavated tombs in the old Martyr’s Cemetery in Yarmouk where Palestinian fighters and commanders are buried.  The aim, he said, was to return the remains to Israel.

Mr Raja added that Syrian security forces, while examining the belongings of gunmen being transported to northern Syria earlier that month, had arrested a woman and confiscated two bags of soil she was carrying, apparently from the cemetery, and sent them to authorities for DNA analysis.

“This demonstrates that [the insurgents] are keen to determine whether the Israeli soldiers were buried in this cemetery,” he said. But he denied that the bodies were ever buried in the site.

The last major breakthrough in the search for Baumel and two other soldiers who went missing at the same time came in 1993. During the Oslo peace talks, half of Baumel’s identification tag was given to an Israeli official by the head of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation Yasser Arafat.

Mr Netanyahu’s visit to Moscow comes less than a week before presidential elections in Israel – scheduled for Tuesday.

The fiercely contested race has pit Mr Netanyahu, who is seeking to be reelected for a fifth term, against Benny Gatz, a former military commander and newcomer to the political scene.

In advance of Mr Netanyahu’s meeting on Thursday with Mr Putin, Russia-watchers speculated that the talks were little more than an opportunity for the Israeli prime minister to shore up his image as a broker on the international stage ahead of the vote. Last week he visited Washington to meet the US president and other officials, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, have visited Israel in recent days.

“What’s more telling is that Putin is willing to play along,” said Yury Barmin, a Middle East analyst at the International Affairs Council, a think tank established to advise the Kremlin.

“A serious discussion on Syria and the Golan Heights could only hurt Netanyahu’s standing,” particularly if the Kremlin had issued a statement reasserting its objections to the move, Mr Barmin wrote on Twitter.

Following Mr Putin’s last meeting with Mr Netanyahu in late February, the leaders said they had agreed to coordinate on the pullout of foreign forces from Syria. Since then, however, the US has backtracked and agreed to keep troops in Syria where Israeli airstrikes have targeted Iranian facilities dozens of times.

“Whatever mechanism was discussed,” Mr Barmin added, “it failed to kick off.” – additional reporting by agencies