Jan. prisoner deal draws rising criticism in Israel

Only man returned alive was businessman from family with ties to Sharon

March 16, 2004|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM - The Israeli public never fully embraced the prisoner swap in January that freed Elhanan Tannenbaum from the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, which had taken him hostage three years ago.

He was not a soldier captured while performing his duty but a businessman motivated by profit. The day Tannenbaum returned here in exchange for Israel setting free hundreds of Palestinian and Lebanese prisoners, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told the nation of "a promise kept, a moral obligation honored in full," of a fulfillment of a "Jewish value that is grounded in the soil of Israel."

But now, as Israelis learn more about Tannenbaum, who has been detained and repeatedly questioned by police, they are becoming increasingly critical of the deal.

And revelations about ties between Sharon and the Tannenbaum family, which Sharon did not disclose to the public or to his Cabinet before it approved the prisoner exchange, are raising questions about whether the swap was made out of national duty or to repay personal favors.

Israel's state comptroller announced last week that his office would investigate how the prisoner swap was approved.

Tannenbaum's father-in-law had been a business partner of Sharon nearly 30 years ago and helped Sharon build and run a farm in southern Israel.

Sharon said he did not know of the link between the father-in-law, Shimon Cohen, and the Tannenbaums.

Sharon is the subject of three police investigations involving campaign financing and land deals, and one of his former business partners has been indicted on bribery charges.

The allegations against him are taking a toll. A survey this month by the Dahaf Polling Institute, shortly after the allegations surfaced, found that 66 percent of the Israelis questioned said they had lost faith in their government. For the first time, more than half, 53 percent, also said Sharon should resign.

"People have the feeling that they can't trust these guys," said Uri Dromi, a researcher with the Israel Democracy Institute. "Nobody believes for a second that anyone does anything except for their own parochial interest."

Dromi said that Tannenbaum was the catalyst for wider discontent. "Sharon is the real target," he said. "It adds to the other scandals."

Israeli newspapers have published varying accounts of what Tannenbaum is allegedly telling investigators. Security officials say they doubt that they have heard a fully truthful version.

Even Tannenbaum's lawyer, Eliyahu Zohar, is having trouble sorting fact from fiction. Asked whether his client is telling the truth, he said in an interview: "I really have no idea."

Zohar, who was hired by Tannenbaum's family, confirmed in an interview that his client gave the following account to authorities, which they and Zohar say they view as the closest version to the truth:

Tannenbaum has said his travels were related to his efforts to secure a drug transaction that he viewed as a "deal of a lifetime" to pay off more than $100,000 in gambling debts.

With help from an Arab business associate, Tannenbaum flew to Brussels, Belgium, picked up a false Venezuelan passport, and then flew to Dubai via Frankfurt, Germany. The drug deal was to have netted him $350,000.

At the airport in Dubai, he met a man holding a sign printed with his false name. Tannenbaum ended up being taken to a house where his hands and feet were chained. He was then taken to Lebanon and held by Hezbollah.

Israeli security officials who had searched Tannenbaum's apartment and the residences of his mistresses said earlier this month that they discovered another forged passport and secret documents. Tannenbaum is a colonel in the army reserves and worked for a private defense company that makes artillery components.

Officials say they are discounting concerns that Tannenbaum might have gone willingly to Lebanon, spied or passed on state secrets to Hezbollah.

"Two weeks ago he was the greatest spy ever," said Zohar, his lawyer. "Then he became a small thief and a smuggler of drugs. Our society is jumping from one side to another like a pendulum. The truth lies somewhere in the middle."

Zohar described his client as a poor man with many problems who spent three years in captivity and now a month in a jail in his own country.

"The most serious thing he has to face is his wife and his children, his common-law wives and whatever other stories there are out there," Zohar said. "He owes many people money. ...

"His real problem will start when he is released and he will have to walk on his own feet."

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