- The Washington Times - Friday, November 7, 2003

TEL AVIV — As Israel nears a prisoner exchange deal with Hezbollah, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon faces opposition within his own Cabinet from ministers who believe that Israel is paying too high a price.

Israel would release hundreds of Arab detainees in return for a kidnapped reserve colonel and the bodies of three soldiers.

“This will be a model for replication,” said Israeli Housing Minister Effi Eitam, who compared the damage done to Israel by the prisoner swap to a terrorist attack.

Hezbollah, a militant Shi’ite group, “will come and say we’ve found another way to defeat Israel. We kicked them out of Lebanon and now we’re liberating prisoners.”

If the Cabinet approves the deal in a vote scheduled for tomorrow, it would give a go-ahead for Israeli security officials to finalize the months-old negotiations.

But a majority is still uncertain. Eight ministers in the 23-member Cabinet reportedly oppose the deal and another eight are undecided.

Israel has been trying to win the freedom of Elhanan Tannenbaum, a businessman who was last seen in Europe after being taken captive in October 2000. It also wants to bring back the bodies of soldiers snatched from the Lebanese border by Hezbollah guerrillas.

In return, Israel is expected to release about 400 Lebanese and Palestinian prisoners.

The inclusion of Palestinian prisoners in the Hezbollah swap would give Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah a victory that would bolster his prestige in the Arab world as a champion of the Palestinian cause.

Israel’s secret intelligence agencies, the Mossad and the Shin Bet, which will participate in tomorrow’s debate, oppose the deal on those grounds, according to Israeli public television.

Talks between Israel and Hezbollah have been held intermittently over the past three years through German government mediators. Analysts say that until now Israel has resisted linking the release of militants arrested in the West Bank and Gaza to talks with Hezbollah.

“To give Hezbollah and Nasrallah credit for achieving that seems to be totally counterproductive to Israel’s objectives,” said Gerald Steinberg, a professor of political science at Bar Ilan University. The government “will have to make a case that they haven’t made before.”

Mr. Sharon told family members of the soldiers kidnapped three years ago that he is determined to win approval for the deal in the Cabinet.

Another controversial aspect of the swap is that Israel seems ready to give up Mustafa Dirani and Sheik Abdel Karim Obeid, two Hezbollah operatives kidnapped by Israel in 1994 and 1989 respectively as negotiating chips to secure the release of air force navigator Capt. Ron Arad, who was taken prisoner after his plane was shot down over Lebanon 17 years ago.

But there’s no indication the deal includes Capt. Arad or any new information about his whereabouts.

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