On Oct. 16, 1986, Israeli Air Force Lt.-Col. Ron Arad’s plane went down during a bombing mission in southern Lebanon. Arad ejected, but was taken prisoner on the ground. While Israel initially knew his whereabouts, it lost track of him in 1988.
At the time, the country was unwilling to negotiate his release amid a public outcry over a 1985 prisoner swap that saw 1,150 prisoners released in exchange for three Israeli soldiers captured during the First Lebanon War.
In a 2019 Jerusalem Post article marking the grim 33rd anniversary of Arad’s capture, one of his former classmates, Doron Venikov, reflected on the lessons the country could learn from the tragedy. “In hindsight, Israel’s biggest mistake in the handling of Ron’s case was probably us not making a deal during the first two years of his captivity, while we still knew his location.” Though Israel officially still considers Arad missing in action, reports suggest he died in custody decades ago.
It has been 831 days since Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor were arrested in China, shortly after Canadian authorities detained Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou at the Vancouver airport on an extradition charge from the United States.
There are no doubt countless reasons to dismiss the parallels between Ron Arad and the two Michaels as a false equivalence. China is not Lebanon, Canada is not Israel and Ottawa and Beijing haven’t been engaged in decades—if not centuries—of war. Kovrig, Spavor and Meng are not prisoners of war. And the independence of Canada’s judiciary makes it difficult to negotiate their release in parallel with Meng’s. I’ll add one more: Hollywood folklore has ingrained in our collective consciousness that you don’t negotiate under duress, and so negotiating the release of Spavor and Kovrig in tandem with Meng’s is simply bad politics. No politician wants to look weak.
All of this is true. But here’s what else we know: Canada isn’t negotiating from a position of strength. We are caught up in a proxy war between two hegemonic global powers. Our voice on the world stage relies on strategic alignment more than moral or economic persuasion.
I don’t think it’s unrealistic to conclude that the only way this ends peacefully is by taking a page out of the Israeli playbook. And the only way a prisoner swap takes place is if U.S. President Joe Biden drops the extradition case against Meng. As The Wall Street Journal reported late last year, for that to happen, the U.S. is demanding Meng admit wrongdoing—something she has not indicated a willingness to do.
So what does Washington want from Beijing in order to drop the case without Meng’s admission? What does Beijing want from Washington? What do both want from Ottawa? And what is Ottawa willing to give up in order to bring the Michaels home?
I have tremendous empathy for the politicians and diplomats wrestling with this complex three-way negotiation. The stakes are high and the emotions raw. Any wrong step could derail whatever hopes there are of resolving the crisis through backroom negotiations. It was difficult watching the prime minister twist himself into a pretzel on Friday while answering a question on whether the two Michaels would get a fair trial. And I haven’t even touched on the economic impact this is having on Canada-China trade.
The simplest way to manage this crisis is by focusing on what matters most—and that is the lives of the two Canadians who have been held arbitrarily for more than two years in a Chinese prison. However, this clarity of purpose requires a collective outrage that I have yet to see emerge among Canadians.
When 52 Americans were taken hostage in Iran on Nov. 4, 1979, the U.S. rallied in support. Across the country, Americans tied yellow ribbons around oak trees to bring attention to their plight. The White House and the State Department held two press briefings a day (until they realized that was a political mistake). And for 444 days, ABC News ran a near-nightly 20-minute news special recounting the latest developments on those held at the U.S. embassy in Tehran.
Where has the Canadian support been for our hostages these past 831 days? Where are the ribbons, the daily press briefings and the nightly news specials? As Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor lie for another night in a cold prison cell away from their families, it’s worth Canadians asking themselves, what do we stand for? What are we willing to give up to bring the Michaels home?
Shimon Peres, the man who brokered the 1985 prisoner swap as Israeli prime minister, would end up agreeing to another one as president in 2008, this time in exchange for the remains of two dead Israeli soldiers.
“It is not a happy choice,” Peres said at the time. “On one hand, we have the most terrible murderer. On the other hand, we have our commitment to our boys who were sent to fight for their country. It is our moral duty and our heartfelt wish to see them come back.”