- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 25, 2004

TEL AVIV — Israel will free more than 400 Palestinian and other Arab prisoners this week in exchange for an Israeli businessman and the bodies of three Israeli soldiers held by the Lebanon-based militant group Hezbollah, Israeli officials and a German mediator announced yesterday.

The rare prisoner swap will mark the conclusion of more than three years of secret negotiations. The controversial exchange had been anticipated since September, but there were no indications of a final agreement until yesterday.

Mediator Ernest Uhrlau made the announcement from Germany, and shortly afterward Israel’s government released a statement confirming the deal.

In a hotly contested decision two months ago, Israel’s Cabinet publicly approved the broad outlines of the deal, which will include the release of 400 Palestinian prisoners and 35 Arab prisoners — 23 Lebanese, five Syrians, three Moroccans, three Sudanese and one Libyan.

Steven Smyrek, 32, a German imprisoned in Israel since 1997 for membership in Hezbollah, is also on the list, according to the Associated Press.

In return, the Iranian-backed guerrilla group will free Elhanan Tannenbaum, an Israeli businessman held in captivity for almost 3 years, along with the bodies of three Israeli soldiers abducted along the Israeli-Lebanon border in October 2000.

Israel has declared Adi Avitan, Beni Avraham and Omar Sawaid dead. But their families still hold out hope they are alive.

Mr. Tannenbaum was kidnapped in the United Arab Emirates, reportedly lured there to take part in a shady business deal.

“With this agreement, Israel and Hezbollah have achieved a breakthrough in seeking to soothe one of the most painful consequences of the Middle East conflict,” the German government said in a statement released yesterday evening.

The Web site of Israel’s Ha’aretz daily newspaper said the swap is set for Thursday.

The prisoner exchange temporarily alleviates concern about an escalation along Israel’s northern border just days after violence flared between the Iranian-backed militant group and Israel. Commentators on Israel’s state-run radio suggested the prisoner deal may portend a thaw of relations with Syria, a patron of Hezbollah that has made a public call to reopen peace talks with Israel.

But the deal has been received with pointed criticism by some in Israel who believe that the high price paid by the government will only encourage kidnappings of Israeli civilians and soldiers in the future.

Others have said Israel is helping to inflate Hezbollah’s prestige in the Arab world by broadening the swap to include Palestinian detainees.

“We are actually saying that the Hezbollah is the role model,” said Shmuel Bar, a terrorism specialist at the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center. “We are giving [Palestinians] a message that the only way anyone can succeed in freeing prisoners is Hezbollah’s way of abducting Israeli soldiers and citizens. We’re going to be sorry for this.”

Israel historically has agreed to exchanges of prisoners and bodies in which it released a disproportionate amount of detainees to get a small number in return.

There have been unconfirmed reports in the Israeli media that Mr. Tannenbaum was involved in a weapons deal with an Arab country.

Yuval Steinmetz, chairman of the parliament’s foreign affairs and defense committee, assailed the deal, saying Mr. Tannenbaum could turn out to be a turncoat, Israel Radio reported. Other say Mr. Tannenbaum should face Israeli justice rather than be left with Hezbollah, where it is feared he would die.

Israel’s government has also been criticized at home for agreeing to release two prisoners — Mustafa Dirani and Abdel Karim Obeid — held for years as bargaining chips for the release of Capt. Ron Arad, even though no new information was available about the fate of the Israeli air force navigator.

Under the German-mediated agreement, the future release of Lebanese prisoner Samir Kuntar will be tied to the uncovering of new “tangible” information about Capt. Arad. Israeli analysts said this stipulation served as way for Israel’s government to save face in the absence of any progress about ascertaining Capt. Arad’s whereabouts.

As in the negotiations, Germany is expected to serve as the main conduit in the actual swap. Even though the Lebanese and Israeli prisoners are a short distance from home, they will be flown to Germany for the release.

The fate of prisoners is an emotionally charged issue for the Palestinians. Israel currently holds more than 7,000 so-called “security prisoners,” most rounded up in military offensives in the past three years.

“If 400 Palestinian political prisoners are released, that would bring joy to 400 Palestinian homes,” Kadoura Fares, a Palestinian Cabinet minister and top official in Yasser Arafat’s Fatah movement told the Associated Press.

The families of the dead soldiers expressed mixed feelings. “On the one hand, we want the deal to be closed,” said Mohammed Sawaid, a relative of Omar Sawaid. “But every day that passes before it is finished is like a year because we don’t know what their condition is.”

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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