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Copyright 2004 Jerusalem Post
January 11

HEADLINE: Analysis: What about the prisoner swap?

BYLINE: MATTHEW GUTMAN

With the flurry of diplomatic leaks now entrancing Israel ranging from an apparent Libyan-Israeli d tente to the possible jump-start of Syrian-Israeli negotiations a once much-leaked subject has slipped beneath the Israeli media radar: the Hizbullah prisoner exchange.

In November, the media, including this newspaper, would spill gallons of ink each time senior Israeli negotiator Maj.-Gen. Ilan Biran sniffed. While Biran leaked next to nothing, there was a plethora of willing government and non-government officials willing to leak both what they knew and even what they did not.

In late November, we were told that Hizbullah's Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah was determined to put together a deal by the end of Ramadan feast of Id al-Fitr. Then Samir Kuntar, the murderer of three members of the Harran family, reared his head and the negotiations, the German mediators, and the interlocutors, Israel and Hizbullah, screeched to a halt.

Soldiers Adi Avitan, Benny Avraham, and Omar Sawayid, remain in their graves, while civilian Elhanan Tannenbaum continues to languish in prison.

According to one insider, the two sides agreed to remove the negotiations from the public eye. They would instead go into "hibernation," revealing nothing of the results or intentions of either side.

While some in the Israeli government accused Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of conveniently letting the Kuntar issue scupper the negotiations, then considered "a prize for terrorism," others now view the period of quiet as a blessing.

"Something is happening, because it is so quiet," Ya'acov Avitan, father of Adi, told The Jerusalem Post Sunday.

"We had to get through the Christmas holidays (yes the Germans need their holidays too), and the process has continued. Things are still in process so we don't want to rock the boat." Even the pugnacious Haim Avraham, father of Benny, has stayed mum these last two months, as have the rest of the families, not least the Tannenbaums.

Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee chairman Yuval Steinitz, one of the more informed men in the country, had only this to say: "The responsibility to reveal any information on the swap is the responsibility of the prime minister only."

Steinitz, one of the swap's most strident opponents, would only add that he is "pessimistic, about the swap."

The word from the Kuwaiti newspapers is that information about Ron Arad might be thrown into the mix as a sweetener for Israel to give up Kuntar.

If it were not for Tannenbaum, Sharon would likely take his time navigating the negotiations, squeezing Hizbullah for more information and concessions. But it is ironically Tannenbaum whose ill-health gives the negotiations their sense of urgency and who so notoriously fell into Hizbullah's trap who might be Arad's savior.

Israelis in favor of the swap say that the goods in Israel's hands have exceeded their shelf life. Sheikh Omar Karim Obeid and Mustapha Dirani, former Hizbullah and Amal leaders, have provided Israel with little or no solid information on Arad.

Years of interrogation have pried whatever was relevant from the two. In court they have managed to paint Israel as the aggressor, and Dirani, Arad's captor, has even managed to soften his image with the help of the Israeli courts.

"It's all a set-up," says Tzvi Rish, Dirani's lawyer, who claims his client had not actually kept Arad stuffed in his trunk, nor did he sell the Israeli aviator.

While in Israel Driani and Obeid are worth rather little, back in Lebanon, they are worth much more than their weight in gold. To Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah they are the centerpieces of his national platform of "bringing home the prisoners." Until Obeid and Dirani are ensconced safely in Beirut, Nasrallah will remain only a firebrand politician, not a real regional player. It is Nasrallah's head that will be served up on a platter, not Sharon's, if the deal finally falls through. According to the Kuwaiti papers, Nasrallah has set January 20 as the final deadline for negotiations.

Ultimately, the entire deal hinges upon nothing as hearty as Biran's ability to withstand marathon negotiating sessions, but something far frailer: Tannenbaum's health. Should the 57-year-old, said to be in poor condition, fade further, all bets are off, and the silence will explode in a cross-border cacophony of accusations.





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