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Copyright 2003 Jerusalem Post
October 2

HEADLINE: Negotiating the deal


Arie Lova Eliav was a 61-year-old school teacher in Kiryat Shmona when, in September 1982, prime minister Menachem Begin turned to him for help.

Eliav, a former Knesset member and old-time Labor dove, had been on the Israeli Council for Israeli-Palestinian Peace - a small group of radicals, including Uri Avnery, Meir Pail and Matti Peled, who had met PLO officials in the late 1970s.

At the time, the meetings were severely criticized, but now the Likud prime minister needed Eliav's contacts with Isam Sartawi, a Paris-based PLO adviser, to help locate and free Israeli POWs in Lebanon. Eliav happily obliged. And by May 1985, after prolonged negotiations with Syrian and then Palestinian captors, 12 Israeli soldiers, three civilians and two bodies had finally returned home.

Though Eliav is the first to admit there are no iron-clad rules about prisoner negotiation, there is a common structure and dynamic that applies equally to his own deal and the current bargaining with Hizbullah. It's a long, three-step process of finding and verifying the whereabouts of prisoners; offering a prisoner exchange via a trusted go-between, and perhaps the most tricky part, getting the political echelon to sign off on the deal.

The first imperative of negotiation is establishing signs of life - who is holding the prisoners and are they in good health? But to even know where to begin a search requires the facilitator having access to sensitive intelligence, which Eliav claims, explains why Arab MKs are not picked for the job. Says Eliav: "The job demands knowing the circumstances of the prisoners' capture and being in contact with the Mossad while abroad."

But who will actually meet with both sides? Eliav and the PLO agreed on a roving Austrian ambassador as an intermediary who would establish the bona fides of each party. Eliav says that, while others could have fulfilled the role as neutrals, the Austrians seemed to be the most committed to helping - and besides, Eliav was friends with then-chancellor Bruno Kreisky.

"Today, it's the Germans, and not just because they have ties with Hizbullah and Iran," he notes. "Everyone does."

THE FIRST group to deal back in the early 1980s was Fatah. "The ambassador took photographs of our POWs held by the other side," says Eliav, who reported his findings back to OC Manpower Maj.-Gen. Moshe Nativ (to be succeeded, in 1983, by Maj.-Gen. Amos Yaron).

The diplomat then visited the IDF-run Ansar prison in southern Lebanon to check on the 4,500 Palestinian prisoners held there. Their condition was verified as satisfactory, and the Israeli negotiator, Tel Aviv lawyer Arye Mariniski, went to work. The exchange was made in 1983: six Israeli POWs for all the Ansar inmates plus an additional 100 held in Israeli prisons.

Next up to bat were the Syrians, finishing their trade in 1984, and after them, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, in 1985.

Besides the difficulty in locating prisoners held by various factions, negotiations are slow-paced simply due to all the shuttling between countries. The Austrian ambassador would travel to Vienna then to Damascus, then to Vienna and then to Tel Aviv.

"Each step in the negotiation took a month," says Eliav. "During that period, I myself travelled 30 times to Middle Eastern countries."

Even when there is progress, few outside the principal parties know about it.

"The negotiations work best away from the public spotlight," says Tel Aviv attorney Amnon Zichroni, who was involved in the late 1980s in a failed attempt to broker a swap of two Soviet spies for missing IAF navigator Ron Arad and another unnamed Israeli POW.

This arrangement is especially hard on the families of those missing as they are unsure whether the government has given up hope on finding their sons.

Though the IDF Manpower Division talks with the families via the Missing Soldiers Unit, Yonah Baumel - whose son Zachary, along with tank crewmen Zvi Feldman and Yehuda Katz, went missing in Lebanon after the disastrous Sultan Yacoub battle in 1982 - says that they "are kept in the dark as much as possible."

Today, the unit sits on a joint commission with representatives of the Mossad, Shin Bet and Military Intelligence. This arrangement helps eliminate the petty bureaucratic rivalries that, in the past, made chasing down leads about the fate of MIAs such a frustrating business. But the families are now even less informed about ongoing events than they were in previous years.

"In the 1980s, we had direct contact with Military Intelligence," says Baumel. "Now, we're put in a box."

THE FINAL step in the negotiation process is perhaps the hardest. Once the deal is closed, it needs to be brought before the cabinet for approval and that is where the politics and public pressure begins - especially when the deal is lopsided, as in the PFLP-GC trade of three IDF soldiers for 1,500 prisoners, or when it leaves other POWs still in enemy hands.

Relatives have their own opinions, often divergent from the government, about whether a deal is a good one. Baumel is critical of what he sees as a spendthrift attitude on the part of Israeli negotiators, squandering away barter chips.

He notes that in 1989, he successfully traded only one Democratic Front For Liberation of Palestine terrorist for the body of IDF soldier Samir Assad.

"But to be fair, the Palestinians probably had lower expectations because it was a Druse body," Baumel is willing to concede.

In 1985, the Sultan Yacoub families opposed the PFLP-GC deal because it left their boys behind.

Likewise this current deal with Hizbullah - for the release of Israeli businessman Elhanan Tannenbaum and the bodies of three IDF soldiers killed in an ambush in October 2000 - will leave them out again.

The government would prefer that the families of those still held by the Iranians and others would remain quiet, so it can go about its normal diplomatic functions. For instance, in 1993, after the signing of the Oslo Accords, then-OC Manpower Maj.-Gen. Yoram Yair warned MIA/POW families not to interfere with the government's Palestinian prisoners releases.

And again, in July 2000, then-prime minister Ehud Barak brushed off the families when he was on his way to Washington to hammer out a final settlement with the Palestinians that never materialized.

The families have tried to raise a hue and cry before. Most recently, the family of missing IAF navigator Lt.-Col. Ron Arad petitioned the High Court of Justice to delay the release of Lebanese hostage Mustafa Dirani held by Israel. But if the past gives any indication, the government will agree to another, only partially satisfactory trade.

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