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On the eve of the departure of two top IDF officers to Washington to brief counterparts on the Karine A affair, the defense establishment is proposing that Israel offer to trade the five Egyptian sailors captured on board the ship for Azzam Azzam, an Israeli serving a prison sentence in Egypt for espionage. Israel has continuously denied that Azzam was a spy.

The proposal's initiators argue that the Egyptian sailors were not maliciously involved in hostile activity against Israel, while Azzam also was not involved in hostile activity against Egypt. The proposal has cropped up within the defense establishment, but has yet to be discussed at the political level. However, according to those behind the proposal, the ship's operators planned to use Egyptian venues and facilities during the transfer of weapons on board to Gaza.

Naval Intelligence Commander Admiral Yehezkel Mashita and head of research in Military Intelligence, Yossi Kuperwasser, both former military attaches are to arrive in Washington this morning. Mashita served as the naval attache and Kuperwasser was Military Intelligence's attache. Their current mission is to brief the American intelligence community about the Karine A affair and the connection between those responsible for it in Yasser Arafat's innermost circle and the Hezbollah and Iranian Revolutionary Guards.

The evidence they are bringing to Washington is solid. It was also solid last Wednesday when Mashita promised Chief of Staff Shaul Mofaz that the IDF was not mettling with an innocent vessel. And the evidence has been confirmed since then, during the interrogation of the ship's crew.

On Saturday, Military Intelligence Commander Maj. Gen. Aharon Ze'evi-Farkash decided to "pass the baton" from naval intelligence to Military Intelligence. That same day, Kuperwasser and planning chief Maj. Gen. Giora Eiland briefed military attaches from foreign embassies. The echoes of those briefings were heard in comments made by foreign security officials and ambassadors in Israel.

According to senior IDF officers, the publicized U.S. skepticism concerning the Karine A reflects State Department concerns that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon plans to conduct a "strategic debate" about Israel's relationship toward the Palestinian Authority. According to that view, the State Department, by expressing reservations about Israel's official statements on the ship's links to the PA, is trying to prevent Jerusalem from escalating the conflict with the Palestinians.

Mashita and Kuperwasser have three goals in Washington - to brief the Americans (at the Pentagon's intelligence agency, the DIA; Naval Intelligence; the CIA, and possibly other intelligence groupings); to thank them for their cooperation in covering some of Israel's intelligence lacunae over the ship's route; and to find out if the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet, which patrols the Persian Gulf tracking shipping that might be carrying sanctions-busting goods to and from Iraq, happened to notice the Karine A in the past few months carrying innocent goods north and weapons south.

Interrogations of the crew, which besides the five Egyptians included four Jordanians and four Palestinians, uncovered another layer of contact with the PA. The ship's captain, Omar Akawi, said that he was ordered to port at Hudeida not only to fix a generator but also to load a second batch of weapons beside that loaded inside Iranian territorial waters. Akawi was told he had to organize the ship's hold to take on the extra load, and that a PLO representative and a representative of the Palestinian Authority would be there to handle the loading. The Hudeida port of call, however, was canceled.

While the navy believed the ship unloaded its normal cargo in Dubai, Akawi said the ship was unloaded about 40 kilometers north of Dubai, at Ajamein, also in the United Arab Emirates.

Security sources rejected Palestinian claims, based on the shipping records maintained by Lloyd's List, that the ship was purchased by an Iraqi businessman. The sources said that ships are often bought and sold through mediators and shell companies. In one of the first IDF reports to the press after the ship was captured, it was mistakenly reported that the ship was bought in Bulgaria. The IDF now says the boat was purchased in Lebanon. According to documents, Karine A was destined for Bulgaria.