Swap to proceed despite Arad report

Document says Hizbullah believes missing navigator to be dead, but fails to answer Israel's questions.

Ofer Dekel 224 88 (photo credit: Channel 10)
Ofer Dekel 224 88
(photo credit: Channel 10)
Israel will proceed with the planned prisoner swap with Hizbullah despite dissatisfaction with the report it transferred to the Prime Minister's Office on Saturday on the fate of IAF navigator Ron Arad, who was shot down over Lebanon and captured alive in 1986, senior defense officials said Saturday night. The 80-page document did not provide any new information on Arad's fate, the officials said. The report concludes that Ron Arad is likely dead but does not provide definitive answers to two major questions - what happened to Arad, and where is he or his body, they said. "Despite the report not shedding any new light on Arad's fate, we plan to proceed as planned with the deal," one senior official said. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is expected to bring it to the cabinet for a vote on Tuesday after he returns from Paris, where he is to attending a Mediterranean summit, the officials said on condition of anonymity since no official announcement to that effect was released. The transfer of the report was the first stage of the deal with Hizbullah. The second stage is scheduled for Tuesday, when Israel will transfer some 200 bodies of Lebanese and Palestinian guerrillas and terrorists to Lebanon and in exchange receive body parts belonging to IDF soldiers from Hizbullah. On either Wednesday or Thursday, Israel is to release to Lebanon four Hizbullah guerrillas caught during the Second Lebanon War and Samir Kuntar, who is serving multiple life sentences for killing three Israelis - Dani Haran, his four-year-old daughter and a police officer - in Nahariya in 1979. In exchange for the Hizbullah guerrillas and Kuntar, Israel will receive abducted IDF reservists Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser, who were captured by Hizbullah while patrolling the northern border in July 2006. Olmert has said he believes the soldiers are dead. Defense officials said the exchange was set to take place at Rosh Hanikra, on the border with Lebanon. A UN-appointed German official mediated the agreement, which Israel originally approved on June 29. Israeli negotiator Ofer Dekel recently traveled to Europe to pick up the document on Arad. According to Yediot Aharanot, the report includes letters written by Arad in the first 19 months of his captivity that were never delivered to Israel. In exchange for the report, Israel is to provide information on four Iranian diplomats who disappeared in Beirut in 1982. Iran claims they were kidnapped by Lebanese militiamen allied with Israel, who delivered them to IDF troops. Israel has long denied holding them, and Samir Geagea, former head of the disbanded Lebanese Forces, has said militiamen killed them. On Friday, Arad's daughter Yuval urged authorities not to declare her father dead or to give up the search for him. Israel has been reluctant to declare that the airman is dead, in part because rabbis require proof. "It sounds strange perhaps, but you can't declare a person dead just because you don't know," Yuval Arad told Channel 10 on Friday. She was a baby when her father went missing. Ron Arad was forced to parachute from his fighter jet after one of its bombs apparently malfunctioned. The jet's pilot was rescued by Israeli forces, but Arad was captured by guerrillas from the Shi'ite Amal organization. At first letters and photographs from Arad were sent to Israel, but talks for his release failed. Israel was able to keep track of his whereabouts until May 4, 1988. Since then there has been no new information regarding him. There have been reports that Arad was transferred to Hizbullah and then to Iran, but no reliable evidence of his fate has ever surfaced. Attorney Eliad Shraga of the Born to Freedom Foundation, which lobbies to obtain information on Arad's whereabouts, said that as of Saturday night he was disappointed by what he had heard in the media. "There is nothing new. The report [apparently] does not reveal anything or even half of anything new regarding his fate," Shraga said. Doron Vinkov, a friend of Arad's, said the "government of Israel has to continue to search [for Arad] and we have to continue to remind it that it needs to do so." AP contributed to this report