JERUSALEM, Sept. 22 (JTA) After years of negotiations, Israel and Hezbollah appear closer than ever to a deal to recover Israelis being held hostage in Lebanon. The deal currently under discussion would require that Israel release hundreds of Palestinian, Lebanese, Jordanian and Syrian prisoners in exchange for the release from Lebanon of Israeli businessman Elhanan Tannenbaum and the remains of three abducted Israeli soldiers, whom Israel believes to be dead. It was is not clear whether the deal would provide new information about missing Israeli air force navigator Ron Arad, who disappeared in 1986 after ejecting from his plane over Lebanon. “We are facing a crucial point in the negotiations,” Hezbollah’s secretary general, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, said Monday. “We are approaching the great festive day of the release of our prisoners.” Last week, Israel’s point man on negotiations with Hezbollah, Maj. Gen. Ilan Biran, went to Berlin to discuss the deal with German mediator Ernest Ehrlau. On Monday, Israeli Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger was scheduled to meet with a senior Iranian representative in Kazakhstan to discuss Arad’s fate. Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom also was scheduled to raise the issue before 20 heads of state at an anti-terrorism meeting in New York this week. Israeli lawyer Amnon Zichroni, who was involved in past negotiations over Arad’s release, said he had no doubt negotiations have reached “a progressive stage.” He said Nasrallah’s statement Monday was an effort to give a final push to a deal that is already in the offing. Nasrallah said his organization would do its utmost to find out about Arad “to facilitate the release of more prisoners.” Also for the first time, the radical Lebanese Shi’ite organization is negotiating for the release of Palestinian prisoners, not just members of Hezbollah and other Lebanese prisoners. That has raised opposition among some Israeli lawmakers and Cabinet members, who say they’re worried the deal would provide incentives for future attempts to kidnap Israelis. “The moment kidnapping proves itself as an effective means of releasing prisoners who have blood on their hands, the lives of all Israelis everywhere will be at risk,” Effi Eitam, Israel’s minister of housing and construction, was quoted as saying in Israeli media reports. The exact number of Arab prisoners Israel would release in the deal is not known, though media reports put the figure between 200 and 400. Among those reportedly slated for release are two top Lebanese prisoners, Hezbollah leader Sheik Abdul Karim Obeid and Shi’ite activist Mustafa Dirani, whom Israel originally kidnapped to use as bargaining chips for information about Arad. Israeli officials have said Dirani held Arad captive and handed him over in good health to Iran in 1988. Nothing more is known about Arad’s fate. A Palestinian source told The Associated Press this week that Marwan Barghouti, the West Bank head of the Fatah movement, tops the list of Palestinian prisoners to be released. Barghouti stood trial in Israel this year for organizing attacks during the current intifada that killed dozens of Israeli civilians; a verdict is still pending in the case. Israeli officials, however, said Barghouti would not be part of the deal. Though the exact substance of the deal remains unknown, sources on both sides have indicated that an agreement could be finalized soon. The breakthrough in negotiations apparently came a month ago when Ehrlau, the German mediator, visited Tannenbaum in Lebanon. He reported that the Israeli was in “fairly good” health, and returned with a letter from Tannenbaum to his family. The episode was the first time Israel had received reliable information that Tannenbaum was alive. It responded to the information by returning to Lebanon the bodies of two Hezbollah fighters. Nasrallah’s decision to allow Ehrlau to visit Tannenbaum followed mounting internal pressure in Lebanon to speed up negotiations with Israel. Nasrallah originally had demanded the release of thousands of prisoners, but eventually seemed to settle for a smaller number. Cutting a deal now would afford Nasrallah special credibility: It would be the first time that Israel released Palestinian prisoners as a result of negotiations with a third party from the Arab world, rather than as a result of talks with the Palestinian Authority. Reports about the impending deal have angered some in Israel, including Arad’s family. The family protested the plan to release Dirani without an agreement to receive reliable information about Arad’s fate. Meanwhile, the families of the other three missing Israeli soldiers are demanding that no such obstacles be allowed to block the deal for the return of their sons. Benny Avraham, Omar Souad and Adi Avitan were kidnapped on patrol along Israel’s northern border in an October 2000 attack by Hezbollah, and are generally believed to be dead. Some reports said Israel had promised Hezbollah it would release prisoners more readily in exchange for new information on Arad. This is seen as the impetus for Nasrallah’s comments on Arad to a Lebanese daily Monday and to the meeting between Metzger and Iranian delegates. Nasrallah said in an interview with the newspaper that his organization would make “maximum efforts” to acquire information on Arad “to bring about the release of Palestinian prisoners not included in the deal with Israel,” and to find out the whereabouts of Iranian diplomats who disappeared in Lebanon during the Lebanon War 21 years ago. Iran claims that Israel kidnapped them. Shaul Shai, of Herzliya’s Inter-Disciplinary Center, said Nasrallah’s comments should be taken seriously while cautioning that Hezbollah uses “manipulation” as part of negotiations. Only four months ago, he noted, Nasrallah made a speech in which he purposely was vague about the fate of Tannenbaum to keep Israel guessing and raise the value of a possible deal to secure information about him. Nasrallah even threatened to kidnap more soldiers to improve his organization’s bargaining position.
Prisoner release deal could be close