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Copyright 2004 Maariv International
January 26

HEADLINE: Mofaz: Israel closer than ever to obtaining Arad info

Sharon also optimistic that Israel will soon receive new information on IAF missing navigator's fate.

BYLINE: Ben Caspit

"The State of Israel is closer today than ever to receiving information about the fate of Ron Arad", said Defense Minister, Shaul Mofaz, in an Industrialists' Union Conference in Tel Aviv. Mofaz added: "I say this cautiously, because our enemy is cruel".

Earlier, Prime Minister Sharon told Maariv that he believes the mystery evolving around the fate of Ron Arad, the MIA Israeli air force navigator is closer to being solved than ever before.

"There are ongoing contacts with the Iranians, and I am optimistic that the solution is close. We are closer than ever before", the Prime Minister said, adding that he wanted this matter to be closed one way or another as soon as possible.

In an interview to Channel 2 last night, Ernest Uhrlau the German mediator who is brokering the prisoner exchange deal between Israel and the Hezbollah commentated on the Arad mystery "give me three months and I will solve it", said Uhrlau.

At the first stage of the deal, Hezbollah will hand over businessman Elhanan Tennenbaum and the bodies of three IDF soldiers; Omar Suwad, Benny Avraham, and Adi Avitan, captured by Hezbolllah in October 2000. Israel will release 435 security prisoners in return.

The second stage of the deal is dependent on information about Ron Arad. On a predestinated date, Iran is supposed to deliver information regarding the details of Arad's capture to Lebanon. From there the information will be passed on to the Germans. In return Israel will release Samir Kuntar, a terrorist held by Israel since 1979 for murdering three members of the Haran family.

Arad was shot down over Lebanon in 1986, and captured by Amal, a relatively moderate Shiite organization. Israel had begun negotiating for his release when he was kidnapped by a renegade group within Amal, headed by Mustafa Dirani, who went over to Hezbollah, taking Arad with him as a dowry. The last contact with him was in 1988. Since then various reports have surfaced that he is being held by the Iranians, but Teheran has always denied the charges.

The government authorized the prisoner exchange deal in November 2003 and international effort has since focused on clarifying Arad's fate.

The terms of the deal, according to which Hezbollah has a 90 day period to swap credible information about Arad for Kuntar, and subsequent comments made by the PM, Hezbollah leader Nassrallah and the German go-between indicate that a deal may be close.

Over the years there have been reports that Iran is holding Arad, which Teheran has always denied. If they are true, the 90 day period may be a face saving device, allowing new information to be "discovered". This would enable the Iranian leadership to extricate itself from a situation of its own making, without suffering the public humiliation of being exposed as bald faced liars.

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