Copyright 2003 Jerusalem Post
HEADLINE: Sharon intent on prisoner exchange
BYLINE: MATTHEW GUTMAN AND HERB KEINON
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on Sunday reaffirmed his determination to forge ahead with the Hizbullah prisoner exchange, yet refuses to include cabinet members on the details of the volatile deal before its completion.
Sharon came under fire from Education Minister Limor Livnat, who asked him to hold a discussion on the prisoner exchange, claiming it is unacceptable for ministers to hear details of the impending deal from the media.
Government officials and private individuals - including the family of missing IAF navigator Lt.-Col. Ron Arad, which opposes the current deal - are demanding that Sharon reveal details of the plan before it is completed.
"While a public debate is taking place on this in the media, we don't know what is happening," Livnat reportedly told the cabinet meeting. "I don't want to be faced with a fait accompli, and want to know what is happening before the deal comes together."
Sharon said nothing has been agreed upon, and assured Livnat the matter will be brought to the cabinet for deliberation before a deal is finalized.
He reiterated his position that everything needs to be done to free Israelis held in Arab countries, "especially when they are held by a terrorist organization like Hizbullah."
Sharon and Israel's chief negotiator, Maj.-Gen. (res.) Ilan Biran, have agreed in principle to exchange key Lebanese prisoners Sheikh Abdel Karim Obeid and Mustapha Dirani - Arad's former captor - and several hundred Palestinian and Lebanese prisoners for businessman Elhanan Tannenbaum and the bodies of three soldiers, St.-Sgts. Adi Avitan, Benny Avraham, and Omar Sawayid.
Sharon said there is no reason at this time to involve the cabinet, and asked the ministers to let those dealing with the issue "work in quiet." He warned the cabinet that the spate of reports leaked to the media nearly compelled the German mediators to walk away, and that he had to publicly express his concern over the press reports in order to keep the Germans involved.
Part of the criticism of the deal stems from reports that indicate Arad will not be included in the deal. Yet Sharon assured Livnat that there is no intention of "giving up" on Arad.
There remain three stumbling blocks to the exchange: Foremost, Israel has refused to release Lebanese prisoners who directly participated in terrorist attacks.
Israel would also prefer that the list of prisoners not include Egyptians and Syrians held in Israeli prisons.
Finally, Israel has demanded that Hizbullah provide it with DNA samples of the three soldiers' remains before completion of the deal. That demand is not unusual, as prior exchanges have included some forensic evidence.
According to Palestinian sources, the Palestinian prisoners to be released are predominately those who have served the bulk of long prison terms, and those who have not participated actively in terrorist attacks. They are to be exiled without the opportunity to return.
Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom is to fly to Berlin on Tuesday for consultations with German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer. Although Shalom's aides say it is not the purpose of his visit, he is to be briefed on the status of the up-and-down negotiations.
Israel may try to seal the leaks revealing details about the negotiations. However, the High Court of Justice on Monday is to rule on a petition to lift the gag order on the events leading to Tannenbaum's abduction.
Last week, the Tel Aviv District Court ruled in favor of Channel 10's and Haaretz's petition, arguing that it is in the public's interest to release critical information that might shed light on Tannenbaum's abduction. The media barrage that could follow the High Court's decision might shift the already negative public perception about what is considered to be the high cost of the prisoner swap.
The Tannenbaum family has argued that expos s on Tannenbaum's history might spur Hizbullah to interrogate and torture him further.
In addition to the hundreds of Palestinian and Lebanese prisoners, Israel might return to Hizbullah the remains of Muhammad Hussein Biro, a Lebanese sentenced in Israel to a 14-year prison term for drug smuggling, Haaretz reported.
Biro died of natural causes in Israeli custody at the age of 70, but was considered a Hizbullah insider. He has also been linked to the Israeli Arab who reportedly lured Tannenbaum into the hands of Hizbullah in October 2000.
The Israeli Arab fled Israel to Lebanon when the Shin Bet began to trail him and link him to Hizbullah. He now serves as Hizbullah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah's main adviser on Israel, and is reportedly the architect of several plots to kidnap Israeli businessmen to Lebanon.
Biro's family has petitioned the High Court of Justice to gain the release of his remains, but the state maintains that withholding the corpse in the L. Greenberg Institute of Forensic Medicine at Abu Kabir is a matter of national security.
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