TEL AVIV (Oct. 22)
Hezbollah might well be wondering if Elhanan Tannenbaum was worth the bother.
When the Lebanese terrorist group announced on Oct. 15, 2000, that it had captured a Mossad spy, it seemed to cap the group’s deadly ambush of three Israeli soldiers earlier that month — a jab and a right hook to the Jewish state’s myth of invincibility.
But after the Israeli Supreme Court decided Wednesday to allow a government gag order on Tannenbaum’s case to be lifted, the “international agent” trumpeted by Hezbollah turned out to be something altogether less glamorous: a businessman of dubious judgement whose risk-taking in the name of personal profit may yet cost his country dearly.
According to security sources, Tannenbaum had been in financial straits following an investment in the ill-fated Jericho casino. His luck worsened when he let a family friend, Qeis Obeid of the Israeli Arab town of Taibeh, talk him into a quick-fix venture in Brussels.
Obeid is believed to have been a Hezbollah agent who lured Tannenbaum from Belgium to Abu Dhabi, perhaps furnishing the 57-year-old businessman with a false passport.
From Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates, Tannenbaum was transferred to Hezbollah’s turf in Lebanon — drugged and transported via Iran, according to some reports.
An Israeli security source revealed Wednesday that Iranian intelligence services assisted in the kidnapping, the Ha’aretz newspaper reported. The source said Iran supplied Hezbollah with a plane to bring Tannenbaum from Abu Dhabi to Lebanon, via Iran, and provided the safe house in Abu Dhabi where Tannenbaum was held immediately after his kidnapping.
Exactly what business the reserve artillery colonel planned in Belgium and the United Arab Emirates remains unknown.
Rumors of dirty deals, possibly involving drugs or arms, had abounded, not least after Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon hinted last week that Tannenbaum could be prosecuted once he is returned home. That spurred public speculation on whether Tannenbaum deserved the POW status accorded another Israeli who went missing in Lebanon, air force navigator Ron Arad.
Tannenbaum’s family had appealed to the Supreme Court to keep the gag order in place. They feared that public criticism could jeopardize talks for a deal that would return Tannenbaum and the three soldiers’ bodies in exchange for the release of as many as 400 Arab security prisoners from Israel’s jails.
“If the swap does not go through, Hezbollah will either kill him, figuring he has no more use, or will let him rot in captivity,” Tannenbaum’s tearful daughter, Keren, told reporters Wednesday.
“Today there is an opportunity to bring him home, an opportunity that may not present itself again. Whoever does not take advantage of this opportunity decides, in effect, to kill my father,” she said shortly after the Supreme Court decision.
The family of Arad, who ejected from his plane after it was shot down over Lebanon in 1986, also is part of the imbroglio. They want assurances that two senior Lebanese militants who were abducted by Israel as bargaining chips for Arad, and who head the roster of those Hezbollah wants released, will not go free unless the guerrilla group provides at least information on Arad’s fate.
That’s unlikely, given that Arad was last heard from in 1987. He was presumed passed to Iranian custody not long after his capture. The usually ebullient Hezbollah chief, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, said in a newspaper interview last month that word on Arad was hard to come by, a tacit admission of helplessness.
Indeed, Hezbollah is in a bind. First, Israel pulled the rug out from under its ambush of the soldiers by declaring the three dead in absentia. Now the group has lost another supposed coup in the form of Tannenbaum — though Israeli sentimentality may still prevail on the Sharon government to deal for his life.
Now that the truth about Tannenbaum’s capture is out, however, the question is whether Israel will bargain harder, reducing the number of prisoners to be freed to a more equitable ratio.