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Copyright 2003 Jerusalem Post
October 8

HEADLINE: Report: Prisoner exchange deal to be completed in 3 weeks


A United Arab Emirates newspaper quoted Hizbullah sources on Wednesday, saying: "The [prisoner exchange] deal will be complete within the next three weeks," in spite of recent tension between Israel and its northern neighbors. The deal now awaits Jordanian seal of approval, the sources said.

The sources told Al Bian that Jordan expressed its agreement in principle to the pending deal, to take place between Israel and the Lebanese guerrilla group, and a list of Jordanian prisoners to be released was compiled. Most of these prisoners' names were taken off the Palestinian list, and are probably Jordanian Palestinians jailed in Israel.

Jordan is scheduled to send a delegation to Israel to finalize details of the deal.

Late Tuesday, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon met with Knesset Subcommittee for Intelligence and Secret Services, and disclosed information regarding the deal slated to release businessman Elhanan Tannenbaum and the remains of three soldiers in exchange for hundreds of Palestinian and Arab prisoners in an attempt to convince subcommittee members to support the deal.

The family of Ron Arad has lately declared war on - and managed to spark controversy about - the deal, which excludes demand for information regarding the missing IAF navigator. The prisoner exchange would mean the surrender of Israel's two key bargaining chips - Sheikh Abdel Karim Obeid and Mustafa Dirani - both kidnapped by Israel to promote the release of Arad.

In reference to the circumstances of the kidnapping of Tennenbaum, which are covered by a gag order and have been questioned of late by Arad supporters, Sharon said "even if Tennenbaum has sinned, it is not for Hizbullah to judge him." Several members said that, in light of the new information brought before them, they would have to reconsider their position. However, most of the subcommittee members seem to be opposed to the deal. The Arad family rocked the security establishment Tuesday when it revealed parts of an independent report indicating that missing Air Force navigator Lt.-Col. Ron Arad is likely alive and accusing the government of virtually abandoning him.

Sections of the classified Winograd Commission Report, which was based on Israeli intelligence sources, also directly linked the fate of Lebanese militia leader Mustafa Dirani, who captured Arad in 1986 and then "sold" him to Iran, to that of Arad.

The news of Arad's condition and the report's rejection of swapping Dirani for anyone other than Arad, could derail the negotiations between Israel and Hizbullah for the release of Lt.-Col. (res.) Elhanan Tannenbaum and the remains of three soldiers in exchange for hundreds of Lebanese and Palestinian prisoners.

"The likelihood that Ron Arad is alive is greater than any other possibility," Chen Arad, the missing navigator's brother, quoted from the report. "If Ron is dead, then you can bury me," he told reporters.

Arad refused to reveal when the IDF last heard that his brother is alive, fearing that any revelations could threaten the source of the information. While he also refused to say where Arad was being held, he said the report reveals his location and his condition. He said his brother remains "in the same address" as before.

Israel has long claimed that Iran possesses the answers, but little concrete information regarding Arad has emerged since 1988.

Dissent within government quarters increased Tuesday after intelligence officials briefed the Knesset Intelligence Committee on the negotiations with Hizbullah.

Several MKs and government officials rejected the deal being discussed, saying the price is too high and the deal, as currently being negotiated, would be a "prize to Hizbullah."

Construction and Housing Minister Effi Eitam warned that following such a "disastrous deal" would "turn every Jew and Israeli to a target" for kidnapping.

Chen Arad railed against the government and the IDF for abandoning his brother, "a man sent by this state on a mission," when the information at hand proves that a deal might have been struck to gain his release.

He demanded that the government "do everything to bring him home," adding: "If the mistakes regarding intelligence gathering and negotiations had not been made, then my brother would have been home already."

Arad expressed anger and frustration at his brother's 17-year captivity. He said those who believe his brother is dead "should burn."

As soon as the government was alerted of the certainty of Arad's capture and location, chief Israeli negotiator Ilan Biran was instructed to include demands on information regarding Arad in the German-mediated talks with Hizbullah.

Yet there are some inconsistencies in the Arad story, according to Aryeh Eliav, a former Israeli hostage negotiator. He wonders why Iran, which claims that the remains of four of its agents are held in Israel, has consistently denied links to Arad.

"They would not hold him until he is 70," said Eliav, "They would have tried to bargain for him by now, if the story is completely true."

The prisoner swap with Hizbullah, which once seemed almost sealed, has snagged on a number of issues, including Arad and the heavy price Israel must pay, security sources have said since Biran's return from Germany on Thursday.

Hopes flagged Tuesday the third anniversary of the kidnapping of St.-Sgts. Omar Suwayed, Benny Avraham, and Adi Avitan that there could be a deal in the near future.

Meantime, the Tel Aviv District Court held a closed hearing regarding the gag order on the reasons behind Tannenbaum's kidnapping by Hizbullah three years ago.

Defense officials apparently testified that, in principle at least, exposing information will not damage state security.

Tannenbaum's family has warned that if leaked, any information regarding his involvement with the military, or what some call his "dubious business deals," could be used against him by his torturers.

Tannenbaum's sister, Esther Tannenbaum, threw up her hands following the court session, which was closed to the press, saying: "A man's life is in jeopardy, and here they are holding a cultural debate whether [publicizing the circumstances of his kidnapping] will harm him or not."

The Tannenbaum family fears that in addition to more torture, Hizbullah might reject a deal should light be shed on Tannenbaum's "huge service to the state," demanding that Israel pay a higher price for him.

The two sides, the state, and the Tannenbaum family's lawyers agreed to let the court decide what information can be published. Security officials said journalists will have to process all material surrounding the Tannenbaum case through the IDF Censor.

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