Right-wingers attack Sharon over Hizbollah prisoner exchange

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The Independent Online

Ariel Sharon, Israel's Prime Minister, defied criticism yesterday from his own right-wing constituency and defended a government decision to release 400 Palestinian and 36 other Arab prisoners in exchange for one Israeli and the remains of three soldiers abducted by Hizbollah in October 2000.

Israel and the Lebanese Shia militia confirmed that the deal, brokered by a German mediator, will be completed on Thursday. Mr Sharon was under intense pressure from the families of the missing men. Soldiers in Israel's largely conscript army expect the government to do everything to "bring them home" if they fall into enemy hands. Parents of the dead want a grave.

Mr Sharon said: "Rarely is a government faced with decisions as charged with issues of values and morality as these. In my opinion, we made the correct, moral and responsible decision." Most Israelis agree, and Sever Plotzker, a columnist in the widely-read newspaperYediot Aharonot, wrote: "It is a poor and flawed deal, but we had no choice."

The misgivings are inflated by the suspicion that Elhanan Tannenbaum, the Israeli who will come back alive, was lured into a Hizbollah trap by the offer of a lucrative business deal. General Ilan Biran, Israel's chief negotiator, labelled the retired artillery colonel and bankrupt trader a "crook". He is expected to be investigated on his return.

Israelis recognise that the swap will boost Hizbollah's prestige in the Arab and Muslim worlds. Its confrontational strategy will be seen to have paid off, whereas Mr Sharon refused last year to release a similar number of prisoners as a gesture to Abu Mazen, the former Palestinian Prime Minister, who wanted to co-operate in curbing the activities of the gunmen and the bombers. Boaz Ganor, the director of the Institute for Counter Terrorism in Herzliya, said: "Israel has violated its taboos one after the other. First it agreed to release numbers of terrorists out of all proportion to the number of Israelis being released. Then it agreed to release terrorists with blood on their hands. Having refused to allow Palestinian terrorists to return to their homes in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Israel then agreed to permit this." He noted that many of the 1,150 people released in a similar exchange in 1985 went back to the armed struggle.

Effi Eitam, Mr Sharon's hardline Housing minister, denounced the deal as "an error that will cost us dearly in the relationship with Hizbollah and the world of terror, and will endanger many more Israelis who may be the victims of abductions".

Among the 23 Lebanese to be set free are two senior Shia militants - Mustafa Dirani and Abdel Karim Obeid - who were kidnapped from their homes as bargaining chips for Ron Arad, an airman who has been missing for 17 years since his plane went down over Lebanon. Israel believes he was then transferred to Iran. But Mr Sharon made the release of another Lebanese - Samir Kuntar, serving multiple life sentences for killing three Israelis in 1979 - contingent on hard information about Mr Arad's fate.