TEL AVIV — The simmering debate over Israel’s January 29 hostage exchange deal with Hezbollah erupted into a full-scale political crisis this week, following news reports that Prime Minister Sharon had a personal relationship with the father-in-law of the sole Israeli brought home alive in the deal, reserve colonel and suspected drug dealer Elhanan Tennenbaum.
The disclosures forced Sharon to break his month-long silence on the hostage deal and publicly deny that he had any knowledge of the family relationship between his onetime friend, Shimon Cohen, and the freed captive. Sharon said he had not worked with Cohen in years and had no motive in pushing for the deal other than the moral imperative of freeing an Israeli citizen from captivity.
The daily Ma’ariv charged in a front-page story Wednesday that personal motives had led Sharon to press for the controversial deal, in which Israel freed 400 Palestinian, Lebanese and other prisoners in exchange for Tennenbaum and the bodies of three soldiers missing since 2000. The disclosure has led to a wave of calls by Ma’ariv and opposition politicians for Sharon’s resignation.
Sharon’s denials put him on the spot. He has been under pressure for a year because of investigations into his campaign finances, but has retained the public’s basic confidence because of his leadership on security. The current charges, however, imply that personal considerations impaired Sharon’s judgment in security affairs. If any part of the charge is proved true — if Tennenbaum’s family or anybody else proves he did know of the relationship — the prime minister will be caught in an outright lie over a highly sensitive matter, and could be forced to resign.
Critics have long wondered about Sharon’s motives in pushing for the lopsided hostage deal, a swap of 400 security prisoners for three corpses and a suspected drug dealer. The prime minister has so far refused to say how much he knew of Tennenbaum’s misdeeds before the hostage deal was signed. Critics of the hostage deal had claimed from the outset that Sharon was trying to divert attention from his legal troubles.
The debate has continued to heat up since Tennenbaum’s return. He has been questioned nonstop by the police, the army and the Shin Bet security service on the murky circumstances that led him into the terrorists’ hands. No decision is expected until late next week on whether to press charges against him.
In an effort to get his full story, prosecutors last month signed an immunity deal under which he will not be prosecuted for criminal offenses if he tells the whole truth. He could still be liable for security offenses.
The immunity deal has sparked new protests. Protests have focused on Tennenbaum’s unbecoming conduct as a ranking military officer, endangering state security, forcing the state to pay a high price for his freedom and then forcing the state to bargain with him for the full story. Several Knesset members claim Tennenbaum was handled with kid gloves, allowed home visits and then held in a relatively posh detention facility, because the military and the Shin Bet wanted to cover up their own bungling. Two lawmakers, Ophir Pines of Labor and Hemi Doron of Shinui, have asked the Supreme Court to void the agreement. Another, Haim Ramon of Labor, has called for Tennenbaum to be stripped of his rank and demoted to private.
The plea deal specified that Tennenbaum must give a full accounting of events, including answers to three main questions: How did he arrive in Lebanon, what kind of deal was he supposed to make with Hezbollah operative Keis Obeid, and what information did he divulge to his interrogators during his three years in captivity? If he passes a lie detector test, Tennenbaum will not face common criminal charges. But if he lies or is suspected of crimes involving state security, he will be charged. Initial reports on a polygraph test this week were mixed.
Tennenbaum originally claimed he went to Lebanon to obtain information on the missing Israeli airman Ron Arad. After the immunity deal he changed his story, and now says he went to Dubai to pursue a drug deal with Obeid, a longtime acquaintance who fled Israel in 2000 and became a top Hezbollah operative. Tennenbaum said he used a fake Venezuelan passport to get into Dubai, and that Obeid had promised him $150,000 for his part in the alleged drug deal. He said his main motive was the fact that he was deep in debt — some $110,000, according to one version.
Once in Dubai, Tennenbaum claimed, he was taken to a villa, where he was drugged and abducted to Beirut.
As for the information he divulged, Tennenbaum claimed the Hezbollah interrogators were “amateurish” and failed to ask him about secret projects in which he had been involved. He even bragged that, being “a colonel and a genius,” he had no trouble fooling them, and managed to give away only unimportant information such as names and ranks of his superiors.
But some of his police and Shin Bet interrogators have leaked word to the press that they doubt his version. According to these sources, there is evidence that Tennenbaum was “abducted with his own consent” and was actually working with Hezbollah. They also said they suspected he was not after any drug deal, but rather went to Dubai to sell sensitive security information to Hezbollah. Ha’aretz reported this week that Tennenbaum had illegal possession of secret military documents before his trip to Dubai.
Lawmakers and the media accused the army’s counter-intelligence arms of failing to detect Tennenbaum’s compromised position before he left Israel. How, critics ask, could the army fail to notice that a ranking colonel in the artillery corps, privy to some of the nation’s most secret military projects, was deep in debt, prone to gambling and associating with known criminals? Knesset member Yossi Sarid of the opposition Meretz party has called formally for a full-dress inquiry on the matter by the chamber’s Foreign Relations and Defense Committee.
Adding to the suspicions are reports that the army paid Tennenbaum’s family more than $50,000 in reserve pay during his three years in captivity and also anted up for his current legal bills.
To compound Tennenbaum’s troubles, some of the women in his life intend to sue him. Raimonda Fisher, who claims to have been his mistress in the period before his ill-fated trip, says that he swindled her. Another woman, identified only as M., announced her intent to sue him for patrimony of her 11-year-old son. She is said to have been the one who tipped off security forces to Tennenbaum’s alleged drug dealing while he was still in captivity.
Tennenbaum’s wife and two children, who argued powerfully for his release in the days leading up to the hostage deal, were unavailable for comment after his return, suggesting more surprises yet to come.