US fails to Sell Cairo Azzam Trade for Lebanese Kuntar. Berlin Is Now Trying

The fate of the Nahariya killer Lebanese Samir Kuntar hangs in the balance over the next round of Israeli-Hizballah negotiations on the exchange of prisoners. Chief Israeli negotiator Major General (Ret.) Ilan Biran flew to Berlin Monday November 24 for yet another agonizing attempt brokered by Germany to gain the freedom of Elhanan Tannenbaum and the bodies of the three Israeli soldiers the Hizballah kidnapped three years ago.
Meantime, the Sharon government decided to release 10 Jordanian prisoners to mark the end of Ramadan feast of Eid al Fitr.
While agreeing to hand over several hundred Lebanese prisoners, Israel has adamantly refused to release Kuntar. The Hizballah have just as firmly labeled him the sine qua non for the deal. Officials in Sharon’s bureau while dropping veiled hints are keeping the bargaining cards very close to their chests. All the same, debkafile‘s intelligence sources have discovered that the German go-between has been handed a fresh offer: Kuntar for the Israeli Azzam Azzam, who has been languishing in an Egyptian jail since 1997 when he was convicted of spying for Israel.
Every Israeli government has tried in vain to obtain the release of the Israeli Druse engineer who was employed at an Israel-Egyptian textile factory when he was arrested. Now, his case is again on the table. Prime minister Ariel Sharon believes that Azzam’s release by Egypt might overcome his ministers’ resistance to letting Samir Kuntar go. The deal with the Hizballah could then go through.
According to our sources, the US government stepped in last month to give the deal a push. A call was put through from Washington to Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak with a request to let the Israelis have Azzam to break the blockage on Kuntar and so end the drawn out negotiations. Why does this matter to the United States? The Egyptian president wondered. If it falls through, said the Americans, Nasrallah’s standing in the Hizballah will plummet. To regain popularity he will resort to major terrorist attacks against Israel. The Hamas and the Jihad Islami will then dig their heels in against a ceasefire that Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman is working so hard to broker. The situation will spiral out of control on two fronts, the Lebanese and the Palestinian. That is not good for any of us.
Mubarak thought the proposal over for a few days. He then came back to Washington with a: Sorry, but no.
Israeli negotiator Biran then received word from Berlin that the Germans were willing to try their hand at winning Mubarek round and obtaining Azzam’s freedom. According to debkafile‘s Washington sources, Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder is anxious to patch up his relations with the Bush administration. He was in New York last week with rosy accounts for financial circles and Wall Street of the prospects for Germany’s economic recovery. The chancellor believes his if he can bring Egypt round and help close the Israel-Hizballah prisoner trade, he will have a good handle for recruiting American investors.
At that point Mubarak began taking an active interest in the prisoner trade discussions. Over the weekend, as a device for pre-empting the expected approach from Berlin, Cairo began releasing to Egyptian Islamic Internet sites purported transcripts of Azzam’s interrogation by Egyptian intelligence in 1997. Included were secret recordings by Egyptian intelligences of Egyptians that Azzam was accused of recruiting for the Mossad.
He is now charged with using his job to lure Egyptians on visits to high class hotels in Eilat where they were allegedly offered sex by Israeli girls in front of hidden cameras. Upon their return, the they were threatened with exposure to their families unless they spied for Israel.
At the time, the Israeli engineer was sentenced to 15 years with hard labor for receiving underwear soaked with invisible ink and passing it to an Egyptian colleague, Emad Ismail, who was also arrested. Both worked at a north Cairo underclothing factory part owned by the Israeli Delta.
In the latest releases, transcripts of Emad Ismail’s telephone conversations are described as proving he carried on an illicit affair with a worker by the name of Zahara. The pair is said to have planned a trip to the Sonesta Hotel in Eilat where they stayed at a sumptuous suite and were filmed by Israeli intelligence.
debkafile‘s intelligence sources believe Cairo published this material to tie its own hands and make it impossible to set the Israeli engineer free. If the German chancellor’s office asks for Azzam’s release as a trade for Kuntar, the Egyptian government will reply there is no way this can be done when everyone in Egypt knows about the convicted Israeli spy’s exploits. Schroeder and his advisers will have to come up with a cunning lure to get past that obstruction. Bargaining over the prisoner exchanges still has some way to go.

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