JERUSALEM – The tale is reminiscent of a paperback thriller: An Israeli colonel using a fake passport sneaks into an oil emirate for a murky business deal, is betrayed by a friend, kidnapped and shipped in a coffin to militants in Lebanon.
But the intrigue behind Elhanan Tannenbaum's capture three years ago by Hezbollah (search) is more than just a page-turner here — it has become a weapon in the hands of Israelis trying to torpedo a massive and lopsided prisoner exchange being negotiated with the militant group.
"The special circumstances of Tannenbaum's [capture] might be extremely relevant to the question of whether Israel should pay a price or make any efforts whatsoever to bring him back," said Yuval Steinitz, a lawmaker from the ruling Likud Party.
Under the proposed deal — brokered by Germany during months of negotiations, and still unofficial — Tannenbaum and the bodies of three Israeli soldiers would be returned to Israel in exchange for the release of several hundred Arab prisoners, including Palestinians.
But the family of Israel's most famous prisoner of war, Ron Arad (search), has campaigned against the swap because it reportedly would include the release of a Lebanese guerrilla leader seized by Israel as a bargaining chip in Arad's case.
The unusual situation has created something of a public relations war between two media-savvy, telegenic and desperate families.
Tannenbaum's children, while expressing sympathy with Arad's family, have appealed to the Israel government to put all the controversies aside and bring home their father.
"Every day that passes lessens the chances of him returning home alive," his daughter, Karen, wrote in the Yediot Ahronot daily. "I love him, I miss him, and I am not giving up on him."
Many on the right, including members of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's Cabinet, strongly oppose the idea, saying the release of hundreds of prisoners is too high a price to pay for three dead soldiers and a civilian.
Opponents also argue that allowing the Lebanese-based Hezbollah to claim credit for the release of Palestinian prisoners would boost its regional stature, and set a bad precedent that could threaten Israelis around the world by making them targets.
In the past, Israel has made lopsided trades to obtain the release of prisoners of war and the bodies of dead soldiers, but it has never made such a trade for an Israeli citizen captured while on private business abroad.
But the shadowy circumstances surrounding the October 2000 abduction of Tannenbaum, a reserve colonel, have stoked the biggest controversy over the deal.
Israeli media have reported that a police investigation found Tannenbaum was mired in gambling debts when an Israeli-Arab friend, Qayis Obeid, lured him to Belgium with the promise of a business deal that could solve all his problems.
Tannenbaum was given a false passport, then flew to the United Arab Emirates, where he was captured by Hezbollah, possibly with Iranian support.
He was then drugged, stuffed into a coffin and shipped to Lebanon.
Israeli media, quoting unnamed sources, have said Tannenbaum's proposed business deal involved drugs or something else illegal, allegations his daughter rejected as "vicious rumors."
Sharon has said the revelations would not deter the government from pushing forward with the deal. If Tannenbaum has done anything illegal, he will have to answer for it after he comes back to Israel, Sharon said.
As the controversy raged, reports surfaced that Hezbollah had beaten and tortured Tannenbaum, ripping out all his teeth without anesthetic. His family says his health is fading, and he may not survive much longer.
Israeli defense sources said Sharon's office leaked the torture report to win public sympathy for the deal.
Days later, though, another report was leaked claiming new signs of life from Arad, the missing aviator who was shot down over Lebanon in 1986.
Arad was last heard from directly the year after his capture, when he sent letters and a picture to his wife. The report, citing three Iranian defectors living in Europe, said Arad was held until 1999 in a secret detention facility in Iran and that he was deliberately crippled by his captors. Iran has denied the report.
Arad's family is angry that the proposed prisoner deal would release Mustafa Dirani (search) — who is alleged to have held Arad for a time and who was snatched by Israel in 1994 — without securing the aviator's release or getting any information on him.
They have circulated petitions and met with politicians, including Sharon, to present their case. They also filed a $22.5 million lawsuit against Dirani they hope would force him to stay here.
Arad's family says Dirani, who was the security chief for the Shiite Amal militia that captured Arad, personally held him captive at one point.
"For us, Dirani is like Milosevic," Arad's brother Chen said, referring to the former Yugoslav president on trial for genocide. "We don't think he is entitled to go home before we have some information, or my brother goes home."
Largely absent from the public arguments are three Israeli soldiers, captured by Hezbollah three years ago along the border with Lebanon, whose bodies also would reportedly be returned.
Israel has declared Adi Avitan, Beni Avraham and Omar Sawaid dead, but their families still hold out hope they are alive.
Beni Avraham's father, Haim, said he has had trouble sleeping out of fear a deal might fall through because of the bickering.
"If they can bring [back] Mr. Ron Arad, please do it," he said. "But if they can't, then bring the others."