TEL AVIV — Amid preparations for the homecoming of four captives — three soldiers presumed dead and a kidnapped businessman — in a prisoner swap with Hezbollah, Israelis this week were fiercely debating the wisdom of the deal and speculating on its fallout.
The deal dominated public discussion for days, pushing Prime Minister Sharon’s mounting legal troubles off the front pages, at least momentarily. Israel agreed to free more than 400 Arab prisoners in the lopsided exchange, which includes a promise of information in the months ahead about the fate of the long-missing airman Ron Arad. The agreement was mediated by Germany, which agreed to release three Iranian terrorists from its own prisons in order to seal the deal.
Supporters said the deal showed the weakness of Hezbollah, which is increasingly isolated in the wake of the Iraq war. Hezbollah had earlier demanded 1,500 Arab prisoners in exchange for its captives.
Critics, however, charged that the deal effectively rewarded the Lebanese terrorist group and ensured that more Israelis would be kidnapped in the future. Critics fumed, too, that Israel was giving concessions to Hezbollah and its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, after refusing similar gestures to Jordan or to the former Palestinian prime minister Mahmoud Abbas.
Indeed, Jordan was furious over the deal, forcing Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom to cancel a planned visit to Amman this week. By contrast, Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi hailed the deal, calling it “a major victory for the resistance, for the people and for Lebanon’s government.”
Looming over the debate was the still-fresh trauma of a similar deal in 1985, in which Israel released 1,150 prisoners in exchange for three soldiers kidnapped in Lebanon by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command. Many of those freed quickly rejoined the front and became activists in the first Palestinian intifada that erupted two years later, souring Israelis on future deals.
A group representing families of terror victims filed suit with Israel’s Supreme Court this week seeking to block the deal. Anticipating failure, members of the group, Victims of Terror, were checking the government’s prisoner list to find individuals who might be held back.
Given the deal’s steep cost, there was furious whispering in Jerusalem that Sharon had pushed it forward in part to divert attention from his own legal troubles. He was named last week in an indictment handed down against a Tel Aviv real estate developer, David Appel, who is charged with bribing Sharon to use his influence to advance a planned resort complex in Greece.
Sharon has not been indicted, but pressure on him is mounting. This week he won a no-confidence vote by an uncharacteristically narrow 49-to-32 margin. Polls indicate that a majority of the public — 53% in a Ma’ariv survey, 68% in the liberal daily Ha’aretz — believes Sharon was aware he was being bribed.
The debate is likely to intensify next week with the swearing in of a new attorney general, Menachem Mazouz, a respected career prosecutor who will now have the final say on whether to file charges against the prime minister. Sharon declared last week that he will not step down even if indicted. Within his Likud party, however, rivals already were jockeying to succeed him.
Those close to the prime minister dismissed speculation about his motives in the prisoner swap, insisting he was deeply committed to bringing Israeli soldiers home. Sharon himself was wounded and nearly left for dead on a battlefield in 1948, and has been known ever since for his fierce devotion to the welfare of his troops, a trait often cited by his loyalists.
The three missing soldiers, Benny Avraham, Adi Avitan and Omar Suwaeid, were abducted by Hezbollah while on patrol near the Lebanese border in October 2000, and later were declared dead by the army. Nasrallah refused to spell out their fate this week, tauntingly insisting in a news conference that Israelis would learn “who is dead and who is alive” only on Thursday, the day of the exchange. The taunts further inflamed opponents of the swap.
A second phase of the deal would create a joint German-Hezbollah working group to seek information on Arad, an Air Force navigator who bailed out over Lebanon in 1986 and has not been seen since. Arad’s last known captor, Mustafa Dirani, seized by Israeli commandos in 1994, was among the 436 Arab prisoners — including Lebanese and Jordanians as well as Palestinians and one German citizen — who were to be released this week. In addition, Israel was to return the bodies of 59 Lebanese killed in fighting.
If solid evidence is found regarding the fate of Arad, who is believed to have been snatched from Dirani by Iranian Revolutionary Guards, Israel would release another group of prisoners.
The most heated controversy swirled around the businessman, Elhanan Tennenbaum. A reserve army colonel, he is believed to have been traveling in Abu Dhabi on questionable business when he was abducted in late 2000. As rumors of the circumstances have circulated in recent months, opposition has mounted to a deal in which he would be the only Israeli likely to return alive.
Sharon has stood firm, insisting when questioned that whatever Tennenbaum did, Hezbollah could not serve as Israel’s penal authority. The German mediator who negotiated the prisoner exchange, Ernest Uhrlau, reported after meeting with Tennenbaum in recent months that his health was declining, prompting fears that he might not survive if his captivity continued.
As the deal drew closer, however, it became increasingly apparent that Tennenbaum would not get a hero’s welcome when he returned home. After a short meeting with his family, he is to be interrogated on the circumstances of his capture and what if anything he told his Arab interrogators. His military role gave him access to sensitive information.
In the end, it seemed the deal was finalized only because of American and European pressure on Hezbollah and its Iranian and Syrian patrons. Tehran is seeking ways to get closer to the West, while Damascus has been nearly frantic in its efforts to keep itself off President Bush’s so-called “Axis of Evil.”
Observers believe Nasrallah, whose organization is known in Washington as the “A-Team” of international terror, fears becoming the sacrificial lamb in the Iranian and Syrian conciliation attempts. Hence his insistence on completing the deal, even as Israel lowered the price.
A final snag arose when Israel refused to release a key Lebanese prisoner demanded by Hezbollah, Samir Kuntar, who took part in a murderous 1979 attack in the northern town of Nahariya. Security sources say he is being held for the second phase of the deal, which will depend on Israel receiving information on Arad.
The Ron Arad affair has been one of the most painful thorns in Israel’s side for 17 years. Throughout, Israel has put vast resources into finding out what happened to the missing airman, with no success. Intelligence sources say only a handful of people, most of them Iranian, know what really happened to him. They believe Iran will have to create some cover story before it can disclose his fate without being blamed for holding him for so long. Some now compare the affair to the disappearance of Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish aristocrat who saved Jews during the Holocaust and died in a Soviet prison. Only after the Soviet Union collapsed was his fate learned.
Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz optimistically claimed this week that “we are closer than ever to finding out what had happened to Ron.” But as the first part of deal drew closer, no one could tell for certain.