Sharon's prisoner swap with Hizbollah splits his cabinet

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The Independent Online

By the narrowest of margins, 12 votes to 11, Ariel Sharon persuaded the Israeli cabinet yesterday to approve a prisoner swap that is bound to provide fodder for moral philosophers and conspiracy theorists for years to come.

The Prime Minister is now free to conclude a deal with the Lebanese guerrilla group Hizbollah to release about 20 Lebanese and 400 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for one live Israeli civilian, Elhanan Tannenbaum, and the remains of three soldiers abducted on the Israeli-Lebanese border three years ago.

Although the Supreme Court lifted a gag order last month and the Israeli media put their best investigative reporters on to the story, there are still questions over how Mr Tannenbaum, 57, a reserve colonel and spectacularly unsuccessful businessman, ended up in a Hizbollah cell in Beirut in October 2000 - and why Mr Sharon was ready to pay so high and humiliating a price for his return.

The Prime Minister told the cabinet that failure to authorise the deal would mean "leaving a Jewish, Israeli citizen in the hands of Hizbollah, thereby bringing about his death".

Israel has repeatedly denied claims by the Shia militia that Mr Tannenbaum was an agent for the Mossad secret service. And Mr Tannenbaum certainly didn't behave like James Bond when he fell into the Hizbollah trap. Rather, local media have accused him of "naivety" and "cupidity".

After he retired from the army, Mr Tannenbaum bought and sold pharmaceutical products - some of them in Southern Lebanon, where he had served as an artillery officer. Ten years ago, he was declared bankrupt. In an attempt to clear his debts, he is reported to have gambled heavily and lost still more.

According to Israeli security sources, an Israeli Arab friend, Keis Obeid, tempted Mr Tannenbaum with "the deal of a lifetime". Mr Obeid has since fled to Lebanon with his family and is said to be working for Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, the Hizbollah leader.

The unsuspecting Mr Tannenbaum flew to Brussels, where Mr Obeid and a Hizbollah reception committee awaited him. The Lebanese, posing as businessmen, supplied him with a forged passport and persuaded him to fly to Abu Dhabi to complete the deal.

There are conflicting accounts of what happened once he reached the Gulf emirate, and about the merchandise involved. Israeli reporters speculate that it might have been drugs, gold, or diamonds.

According to the liberal daily Ha'aretz, the captive was interrogated in an Iranian safe house, then drugged and flown to Beirut via Tehran. Hizbollah claims he entered Lebanon of his own free will.

What no Israeli disputes is that the prisoner trade will be a dangerous propaganda victory for Hizbollah, which remains a ruthless enemy of the Jewish state and an inspiration for Palestinian bombers. Israeli critics fear Sheikh Nasrallah will be crowned as the Saladin of the 21st century.

Limor Livnat, one of the ministers who voted against the deal, said: "The release of hundreds of prisoners will be perceived as weakness and will lead to more terrorist attacks and more kidnappings."

Hizbollah wants the prisoners released this month, by the end of Ramadan, but the deal could yet founder. Mr Sharon has agreed to free four Hizbollah fighters who killed Israelis in Lebanon, but insists on keeping Samir Kuntar, who murdered a family in Northern Israel in 1979.

Sheikh Nasrallah has countered that without Kuntar, there will be no deal.