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Copyright 2002 Ha'aretz

October 16, 2002

HEADLINE: Talks with Hezbollah stalled, 2 years after Tannenbaum abduction

BYLINE: Daniel Sobelman

President Moshe Katsav yesterday called on Lebanon, Syria and Hezbollah to allow the family of kidnapped Israeli businessman Elhanan Tenenbaum to visit him in Beirut. Katsav's comments, made during a visit by Tannenbaum's family to his Jerusalem bureau to mark two years since Hezbollah said it carried out the abduction, come amid an impasse in negotiations between Israel and Hezbollah over Tannenbaum's release.

"It is a basic humanitarian obligation to allow a family to get information about its loved ones. The Tennenbaum family must be allowed to visit Elhanan," Katsav said, adding that Israel was ready to allow the family members of those Lebanese being held captive in Israel to visit them.

At the beginning of September, Israeli officials received a message from a diplomatic source in Lebanon saying that an opportunity existed to move forward with Hezbollah on the possibility of a prisoner swap, and that Israel should move swiftly to make a "proposal" to the radical Shi'ite group on the matter.

The official contended that his assessment - as published in Ha'aretz about a month ago - was based on a public outcry by the families of Lebanese prisoners held in Israel, who were demanding that the government in Beirut and Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah engage in contacts to expedite the speedy return of their relatives. For several weeks, however, there has been no progress in the contacts with Hezbollah, which are being conducted with the help of German mediation. Officials involved in the negotiations said that the contacts ended because of problems in German-Hezbollah relations and not as a result of a disagreement with Israel. A few months ago, Germany expressed its support for a call by the United States and Britain to add Hezbollah to the European Union's list of terror organizations.

There was an expectation that contacts between Hezbollah and Israel might be renewed following the elections in Germany. But last week it became clear that Hezbollah is not interested in advancing the talks at this stage, despite new proposals recently put to the organization.

This trend worries the Tannenbaum family, which recently began to support an Israeli proposal made to the Lebanese government a short time before the kidnappings, according to which relatives of the Lebanese jailed in Israel would visit them, with the mediation of the Red Cross. Lebanon refused the proposal, claiming that any contact between Lebanese and Israelis is illegal. "Our concern now is that there are no negotiations to exchange those captured," Tannenbaum's son, Ori, told Ha'aretz on Monday. "The negotiations are stuck. Responsibility for this falls primarily on Nasrallah, but that doesn't mean we should just sit around. We know that my father is alive, but we also know that every day that passes with him in captivity endangers his life." Tannenbaum also said that Israel should try to advance the contacts with Hezbollah before any U.S. attack on Iraq.

Today marks 16 years since Israel Air Force navigator Ron Arad bailed out of his plane and was taken into captivity in Lebanon. The IDF will mark the anniversary of Arad's disappearance with a special flyby of F15i planes, which will also include a single Phantom jet, which is the type of plane flown by Arad. The planes will set out in formation from Jerusalem at 4 P.M. and will then fly down the coast from Haifa to Ashkelon.

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