Israel Approves Prisoner Swap With Hezbollah

Times Staff Writer

By the narrowest possible margin, the Israeli Cabinet on Sunday approved a prisoner swap with the radical group Hezbollah after weeks of extraordinary public debate over the exclusion of an Israeli airman missing for 17 years.

The 12-11 vote was an immense relief for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who heavily lobbied his ministers and staked much personal prestige on securing the deal. Some analysts had warned that an unsuccessful outcome would be tantamount to a vote of no confidence in his leadership.

Under the deal, Israel is to release more than 400 prisoners, mostly Lebanese and Palestinians, and the remains of some Hezbollah guerrillas in exchange for four Israelis: a captive businessman and three soldiers who many believe are dead. Excluded from the agreement was Ron Arad, a British-born Israeli air force navigator shot down over Lebanon in 1986 who has become an icon of Israeli forces missing in action. It is unclear whether Arad is still alive.

Israeli officials cautioned that talks with the Lebanon-based Hezbollah could still break down at the last minute. But the Cabinet decision was a big step in pushing the deal to completion.

For weeks, Israelis have been enthralled and appalled by the drama surrounding the controversial swap, which had the effect of pitting Arad's family against the relatives of Elhanan Tannenbaum -- who Israel says was working as a business consultant when he was kidnapped -- and the three soldiers, Sgt. Adi Avitan, Sgt. Benjamin Avraham and Sgt. Maj. Omar Souad, who were ambushed in a disputed area.

Arad's family demanded that any deal would have to include, if not the actual release of the missing airman or his body, information about his fate, which remains a mystery. Family members denounced reports that Sharon had offered to release Mustafa Dirani, a senior Hezbollah figure alleged to have acted as Arad's captor who was abducted by Israeli commandos nine years ago -- specifically for use, Arad's family said, as a bargaining chip in negotiations over the downed pilot.

Relatives of Tannenbaum and the three soldiers lashed back, saying that Israel's prisoners were not the Arad family's personal property to dispose of. More urgent, said supporters of the deal -- including Sharon -- was recent evidence that Tannenbaum, who was kidnapped three years ago, remained alive but in such poor health that continued captivity could kill him.

The raw emotions were on display again Sunday after the Cabinet finally took a vote following nearly eight hours of heated debate.

"As far as I am concerned, I feel Ron's funeral begins tomorrow," Arad's wife, Tami, said. "Unlike [regular] funerals it won't take an hour or two, it will last another 17 years."

But Haim Avraham, the father of one of the missing sergeants, issued a riposte. "It's one thing that the Arad family has been miserable for 17 years and the state of Israel has not succeeded in their case, but Israel did succeed in closing the case concerning our families and the return home of our sons. They want us to remain miserable for another 17 years?" he said.

The three soldiers have been missing since an October 2000 clash with Hezbollah fighters across the Israel-Lebanon border. In a highly unusual occurrence, the army's rabbi officially declared the men dead a year later based on evidence that they had been gravely wounded before Hezbollah guerrillas dragged them off.

Lebanese media reported that the prisoner swap could take place as early as Thursday.

But negotiations could collapse, particularly over Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah's insistence that Lebanese militant Samir Sami Kuntar be put on the list.

Kuntar's is a name that still sends chills down spines here for a horrific attack he orchestrated in northern Israel in 1979, which caused the deaths of three members -- two of them young children -- of an Israeli family. But in Lebanon, Kuntar, imprisoned for 24 years, is the symbol for all of the jailed Lebanese.

Nasrallah has warned that failure to include Kuntar would scuttle the deal. But some analysts say he is engaging in the brinkmanship for which he is well known and that he is under pressure from families of Lebanese prisoners to close the deal.

The pressure on Sharon was also heavy, enough that he was rumored to have threatened to fire or demote some ministers if they failed to side with him.

Despite his career in the Israeli military, whose ethos is to recover every one of its own, Sharon said he had to concede the exclusion of Arad and strike a deal now because of the greater Jewish injunction to save a life whenever possible, in this case Tannenbaum's.

According to the terms decided on Sunday, 400 of the prisoners to be released by Israel will be Palestinians, but none with "blood on their hands," meaning those involved in attacks against Israelis.

Direct talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority remain frozen. But they could be revived once Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ahmed Korei installs a new Cabinet to replace the emergency government in charge over the past month.

After bowing to Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat in a dispute over control of Palestinian security forces, Korei announced Sunday he had a list of ministers and would present it for approval this week to the Palestinian Legislative Council.

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