Copyright 2003 Jerusalem Post
HEADLINE: Sharon to seek cabinet okay for hostage swap
BYLINE: MATTHEW GUTMAN
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon announced Wednesday that he will present the details of the impending prisoner swap with Hizbullah for cabinet approval Sunday, possibly paving the way for the repatriation of Elhanan Tannenbaum and the remains of St.-Sgts. Benny Avraham, Adi Avitan, and Omar Sawayid by the end of the month.
The announcement heralds the conclusion of the initial stages of the controversial swap, which reportedly includes the release of Mustapha Dirani, Sheikh Abdel Karim Obeid, and approximately 400 Palestinian, Lebanese, and other Arab prisoners held in Israel.
The move follows this week's statements by Hizbullah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah that the marathon negotiations have "reached their final stages."
However, according to government sources, the deal is not yet concluded. They say it hinges on approval by a cabinet that is split on the merits of what opposing ministers are calling a "disastrous deal."
Following increasing pressure from the German mediators, Sharon said Sunday that "life or death stands in the balance," and therefore Israel must act quickly to finalize the deal, according to a Sharon aide.
Sharon is convinced that by dragging its feet, Israel risks not only the collapse of the current talks, but losing Tannenbaum and the three soldiers' remains forever, senior diplomatic sources said. But they expressed confidence that with Sharon fully behind the swap, the cabinet will bow to his demands.
Chief negotiator Ilan Biran has briefed several ministers who oppose the swap in an effort to convince them of its merit.
Bitter wrangling with Hizbullah over the number and then the names on the list of Arab prisoners, compounded with increasing opposition to the deal here, has caused the negotiations to drag on for months.
In comments to the Lebanese daily Al-Mustaqbal, Hizbullah officials have said they hope to have the released prisoners home in time for Id al-Fitr, the festival ending the holy month of Ramadan (the last week of November).
Negotiators and Shin Bet agents flew to Germany earlier in the week to deliver a list of prisoners Israel is willing to release. Despite Sharon's stated refusal to release prisoners "with blood on their hands," according to initial reports, several Lebanese prisoners to be included in the swap actively participated in terrorist attacks.
Both Israel and Hizbullah have been eager to release prisoners nearing the end of long prison terms, said Israeli sources. Few of the prisoners to be released have more than two years left in their sentences.
The deal might ultimately hinge on Israel's refusal to include Egyptian and Jordanian prisoners in the deal, and on the number of Lebanese who participated in terrorist attacks. Israel is willing to compromise with Hizbullah and is likely to release a limited number of Egyptians and Jordanians, sources said.
Information leading to missing IAF navigator Lt.-Col. Ron Arad will not be included in the swap, although Hizbullah caved in to German pressure and agreed to participate on a committee investigating Arad's fate. In an apparently linked development, German mediator Ernst Uhrlau recently met with Iranian officials in Teheran, where Arad, or his remains, is believed to be held.
Sharon has insisted that negotiations for Arad be conducted on a different track.
Sharon has weathered criticism of the swap from both the Left and Right, maintaining that Israel might not be presented with another chance to secure the release of Tannenbaum and the three soldiers' remains.
Sharon reportedly will face stiff opposition to the deal on Sunday. The cabinet is divided, and much of the opposition stems from the still-unclear circumstances surrounding Tannenbaum's abduction and fears of appeasing Hizbullah.
Construction and Housing Minister Effi Eitam, briefed by Biran Wednesday, slammed the deal as a "prize for terrorism."
"There will not be a single safe place for Israelis in the world if this deal goes through," he told Channel 2, arguing that a swap will only whet Hizbullah's appetite for abductions.
Education Minister Limor Livnat said the deal presents a very difficult moral and ethical dilemma, as there is no new information on Arad and because of the list of those Israel is called upon to release.
Minister-without-Portfolio Gideon Ezra supported Sharon's position, saying: "If we choose not to complete the deal, [Tannenbaum and the three soldiers' remains] could disappear like Ron Arad."
Until this week's apparent breakthrough, negotiations snagged on four major issues: the identity of the prisoners to be released, their nationality, Israel's demand for DNA samples from the three soldiers, and information that might lead to Arad.
Israel has all but given up on negotiating Arad's release in the current swap. Hizbullah has adamantly maintained that it possesses no information on him, and Israeli negotiators are beginning to believe them. However, Uhrlau's visit to Iran might have signaled an attempt to initiate talks on the Arad issue.
Israel also believes that Shi'ite militia leaders Dirani and Obeid are useless as bargaining chips with Iran and therefore should be included, security sources said Wednesday.
Diplomatic sources said last week that the release to Lebanon of an innocent crew member of a weapons smuggling ship was intended to gain DNA samples of the three soldiers. According to government sources, the man was included in several of Hizbullah's prisoner lists.
Herb Keinon contributed to this report.
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