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Sharon Denies Wrongdoing in Prisoner Swap - 2004-03-03


Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon denies he did anything wrong in arranging a prisoner swap with Lebanese guerrillas that included the release of a controversial Israeli businessman. The denial follows reports in an Israeli newspaper about Mr. Sharon's ties to the family of the released businessman.

Israeli businessman Elhanan Tannenbaum has been in the news since his release from captivity in Lebanon in late January, with reports emerging that he was lured to Lebanon by men who wanted him to participate in a drug deal.

But now, Israeli media are focusing on a potential link from Mr. Tannenbaum to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

The charge in the Israeli daily Maariv is that Mr. Sharon worked out the controversial prisoner exchange deal, which freed Mr. Tannenbaum, because of his ties to Mr. Tannenbaum's former father-in-law, Shimon Cohen, who helped manage Mr. Sharon's farm in the 1970s.

In the exchange, Israel received the bodies of three Israeli soldiers killed in a clash with the guerilla group, Hezbollah, and it released more than 400 Arab prisoners along with the bodies of more than 50 Arab fighters, who had died in clashes with Israel. Many Israelis opposed the deal, saying it boosted the standing of Hezbollah.

Speaking to journalists in Jerusalem, the Israeli leader denied any wrongdoing. Mr. Sharon said he had not seen or spoken to Shimon Cohen for decades, and did not know anything about his family or family ties.

Mr. Sharon called the allegations in Maariv a wild attack against him.

According to Maariv, the relationship did open the prime minister's doors to relatives of Mr. Tannenbaum when they were lobbying the government to do more to secure his release. Maariv commentators called for Mr. Sharon to resign, and some left-wing opposition politicians have called for an inquiry.

The prime minister is already under investigation in two corruption scandals, involving allegations of bribery and an illegal campaign loan. Mr. Sharon has denied that he did anything wrong in either case.

Since his release, Mr. Tannenbaum has been questioned by security officers about possible illegal business dealings and what he may have told his Hezbollah captors about the Israeli military. Mr. Tannenbaum was a colonel in the army reserves.

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