PM Expects Deal With Hezbollah to Win Slim Majority

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon will today ask his cabinet to approve "the principles for consolidating [the prisoner exchange] agreement" between Israel and Hezbollah.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon will today ask his cabinet to approve "the principles for consolidating [the prisoner exchange] agreement" between Israel and Hezbollah. Sources in the Prime Minister's Office assessed over the weekend that the proposal would be passed, even if by just a small majority.

According to the proposal, Hezbollah will hand over Israeli civilian Elhanan Tannenbaum and the bodies of Israel Defense Forces soldiers Benny Avraham, Adi Avitan and Omar Suwad, who were kidnapped from the Har Dov area, near the Lebanese border, in October 2000. In return, Israel will release 400 Palestinian prisoners, a few dozen detainees from Lebanon, Syria, Sudan, Morocco and Libya, and a few dozen bodies it has been holding as bargaining chips in recent years.

All the Palestinians to be freed were incarcerated for relatively minor offenses, do not have "blood on their hands," and are slated for release within the next three years.

Among the Lebanese detainees who will win their freedom are Mustafa Dirani and Sheikh Abd al Karim Obeid, three men who fought in battles in which IDF soldiers were killed in South Lebanon, and another man who drove a terrorist to an attack at the Fatma Gate.

Among the Syrians slated for release are five Druze residents of the Golan Heights.

The proposal to be presented to the cabinet includes a clause in which the government undertakes to continue its efforts to locate and return another five IDF soldiers - Ron Arad, Guy Hever and Sultan Yaakub MIAs Zechariya Baumel, Yehuda Katz and Zvi Feldman.

Sharon is opposed to the release of Lebanese detainee Samir Kuntar, a Druze from southern Lebanon who was convicted of murdering two members of the Haran family and police officer Eliyahu Shahar in an attack in Nahariya in 1979. Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah announced last night that if Israel did not release Kuntar, the deal would not go ahead.

Over the weekend, Sharon and his aides polled cabinet ministers in an effort to convince them to support the proposal. Sharon believes the ministers will have to decide whether to secure the release of Tannenbaum, or to sign his death warrant if the deal is delayed.

Prior to a vote on the proposal, the cabinet will hear reports from the head of the negotiating team, Ilan Biran; Chief of Staff Moshe Ya'alon; the head of Military Intelligence, Major General Aharon Ze'evi; Mossad chief Meir Dagan; and Shin Bet security service head Avi Dichter.

The cabinet secretariat gave the ministers copies of the Vinograd Report on the Arad affair, but only two ministers - Education Minister Limor Livnat and Health Minister Dan Naveh - reviewed the document. The report notes the probability that Arad is still alive "is more reasonable" than the possibility that he died in captivity.

Livnat said early yesterday she would vote against the deal. After viewing the Vinograd Report, she concluded that it was unethical to abandon Arad, who was on an operational mission when his plane went down over Lebanese territory in 1986. Livnat placed her vote with the government secretariat yesterday evening, prior to leaving the country.

Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he would only make his decision during the cabinet meeting, after hearing reports from expert sources.

Ministers opposed to the proposed deal charge that the mass release of Palestinian prisoners will encourage further kidnappings and that the release of Mustafa Dirani will destroy any hope of ever learning what happened to Arad.