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Copyright 2004 Jerusalem Post
September 17

HEADLINE: Sharon: Israel received no information on Arad

BYLINE: Matthew Gutman

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on Sunday denied reports that Israel received concrete information on the fate of missing IAF navigator Ron Arad yet confirmed that efforts to obtain such information are ongoing.

During the cabinet meeting the prime minister also confirmed that German mediator Ernst Urhlau is still mediating between Israel and Hizbullah, Israel Radio reported.

Israeli officials on Saturday emphatically denied that Jerusalem and Iran-backed Hizbullah are close to clinching a deal for the repatriation of downed Israeli navigator Ron Arad and three other missing soldiers, as reported in the Omani daily Al-Watan.

Al-Watan quoted sources saying that German mediator Ernst Urhlau delivered to Israel "corroborated and credible" information on the fate of Arad and the whereabouts of his remains that could finalize a deal between the two warring parties within "two to three weeks at the most."

The Prime Minister's Office - as it has done several times over the past six months - systematically debunked the bulk of Al-Watan's story. "To the prime minister's knowledge, Urhlau was not in Israel this week; no, we received no new information and there is no real advance in the talks," said a source close to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

Channel 2 reported, however, that Urhlau had in fact flown to Israel last week where he secretly met with Israeli mediator Ilan Biran and Mossad director Meir Dagan.

Al-Watan quoted sources "closely following the negotiations," saying that Urhlau flew to Beirut early last week where he met Nasrallah who gave him the information on Arad along with a new roster of prisoners on his demands list. Urhlau then reportedly flew through Cyprus to Israel in order to deliver the information to Biran.

But in Sharon's office, sources quipped: "If Israel had that kind of information [on Arad, Lebanese prisoner Samir] Kuntar would be on his way to being free. He is not."

In addition to Arad, Israel hopes to recover the remains of three soldiers, Zacharia Baumel, Yehuda Katz, and Tzvi Feldman, who were captured after a battle near the Lebanese village of Sultan Yakub 1982.

Al-Watan noted that both Israel and the Germans operate under the assumption that Arad is dead, but without definitive proof, Israel is unwilling to seal the fate of Arad, who bailed out of his Phantom jet over southern Lebanon in 1986.

Based on the agreement reached following the successful completion of the first stage of the prisoner swap brokered with Hizbullah in late January, Israel would release Kuntar in exchange for confirmed information on Arad. In the January exchange, Israel released more than 430 Arab prisoners in exchange for the bodies of three missing soldiers and civilian Elhanan Tannenbaum, held in Hizbullah hands for 1,201 days.

Kuntar, a Lebanese Druse who fought on behalf of Palestinian terrorist groups, is not politically connected with Hizbullah, yet is lauded in Lebanon as a hero. He was sentenced to 542 years in prison for the brutal murder of three Israelis in 1979.

At this stage of the prisoner exchange deal, Israel says it will not release Kuntar until it receives solid information regarding Ron Arad. No less than three bone fragments allegedly belonging to Ron Arad have arrived in Israel via mediators since the January exchange. Each time, the DNA did not match that of Arad.

Israeli security sources claim that Kuntar's family members might have leaked the "scoop" to Al-Watan in order to pressure Hizbullah secretary-general Hassan Nasrallah to end his standoff with the Israelis and clinch the prisoner deal. Previous leaks, most of them fallacious, trickled to Arab newspapers during local Lebanese elections, or times when Nasrallah himself felt negotiations slacken, said the security source.

In addition to Kuntar, Hizbullah hopes to gain information on four Iranian diplomats abducted in 1982, shortly after Israel's invasion of Lebanon. Their whereabouts remain unknown, but Iran and Hizbullah have long maintained that the key information on their fate is in Israel.

On the eve of the Rosh Hashana holiday, a senior Israeli military official told reporters, "Even today the key to solving the Ron Arad enigma lies in the hands of the Iranians."

"I am not sure that the Iranians have taken the decision to move in a positive direction," the senior official said.

The official added that the security establishment has "never been close to solving the Ron Arad case," but that Israel is doing its utmost to bring the saga to a successful end.

Joseph Nasr contributed to this report.

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