International Papers

The Best of Enemies

What’s behind the Israel-Hezbollah prisoner exchange?

Most Middle East newspapers led with reports on the extraordinary exchange of prisoners and human remains that will take place this week between the Israeli government and Lebanon’s Hezbollah. Forgotten in the brouhaha was an offer by another militant Islamist group, Hamas, to agree to a truce with Israel if the latter withdraws from Palestinian areas occupied in 1967.

Lebanon’s Al-Diyar headlined its story, “The Prisoners Will Be Freed … After the Land Was Freed,” a reference to Hezbollah’s key role in ending the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon in May 2000. Another Lebanese newspaper, Al-Anwar, which caters to a Christian readership, was equally lyrical: “Popular Preparations [Are Taking Place] To Greet the Liberated Prisoners.” Next to the headline was a photograph of a beaming Hassan Nasrallah, the secretary-general of Hezbollah, who knew he had negotiated a good deal. That was, anyway, the verdict of the Israeli daily Ha’aretz, which in an unsigned editorial titled “A prize for Hezbollah,” noted, “[T]he principles underlying the deal between Israel and Hezbollah for the exchange of prisoners and bodies merit harsh criticism” because it showed “that it pays to strike at Israel, whether through kidnappings, terror attacks or war, in order to reverse its refusals.”

To understand what the paper meant, one had to look at the details of the deal, which Nasrallah explained at a Sunday press conference in Beirut. The London-based Al-Hayat published a front-page story on the secretary-general’s statements, in which he described a two-stage process: Thursday and Friday, 435 Lebanese and other Arab prisoners will be released by Israel in exchange for four Israelis held by Hezbollah—three of them soldiers kidnapped in southern Lebanon in 2000. While the three are said by Israel to be dead, there is no evidence of this, and Nasrallah kept up the cruel suspense by offering no clarification. On Friday, the remains of 59 Lebanese and Palestinians will be sent to Lebanon by Israel. In a second stage, beginning this week, Nasrallah said “committees will be formed of the concerned parties to examine” the fate of four Iranian diplomats who disappeared in Lebanon in 1982 and Israeli pilot Ron Arad, who was shot down over Lebanon in 1986.

Though he gave no specifics, Nasrallah reportedly meant two committees—one including German and Hezbollah representatives, possibly assisted by Iran. The Germans have mediated between the parties, and, according toHa’aretz, may have done more than that to finalize the deal, by promising “to free two Lebanese and an Iranian currently serving life sentences in Germany, and also [trying to] persuade France and Switzerland to release Lebanese prisoners they hold, in exchange for the return of … Arad or his body.” Israel will, incidentally, release a German who worked for Hezbollah. As the Jerusalem Post reported, the second phase will also pave the way for the release of the longest-serving Lebanese prisoner in Israel, Samir Kuntar: “Israel demanded that Kuntar be left out of the deal [because he killed Israeli civilians, not soldiers], and the German mediators eventually decided to link the Kuntar issue with the revelation of information about Arad.”

Among those unhappy with the deal, though you couldn’t tell from public statements, was the Palestinian Authority. The reason? Israel will be releasing to Hezbollah around 400 Palestinians it refused to hand over to the PA. Moreover, they will all return to the West Bank and Gaza. While a Palestinian minister was quoted in Lebanon’s English-language Daily Star saying, “We are happy that the Arab and notably Palestinian prisoners are being freed, and we hope to free all prisoners,” he added, significantly, “[T]he list of those being freed was not given to the Palestinian Authority.” This underlined what many Arab observers have been saying: An intended casualty of the deal was Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. On the one hand, Hezbollah sought to discredit Yasser Arafat and the PA by showing that only force could bring about Israeli concessions; on the other, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon looked to further discredit the PA as a negotiating partner and saw the deal with Hezbollah as a means of achieving this.

Hezbollah’s message of defiance has found an echo among militant Palestinian groups. However, in recent weeks, one of these, Hamas, has suggested it might be willing to alter its strategy, partly through an inter-Palestinian dialogue to arrive at a consensus on how to negotiate with Israel. According to the Palestinian daily Al-Quds, a party spokesman remarked that “bilateral, trilateral, and multilateral meetings are taking place between Palestinian groups inside [the occupied territories] to … pursue the dialogue that began in Cairo” between the factions. What would such a consensus lead to? For one thing, a change in Hamas’ attitude vis-à-vis Israel’s final borders. According to a Reuters report published in Ha’aretz, a senior Hamas official declared Sunday that the party would “accept a [Palestinian] state in the West Bank, including Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip [as opposed to a state in all of Israel]. We propose a 10-year truce in return for [an Israeli] withdrawal and the establishment of a state.” The report said the comments “appeared to strengthen signs of a big political shift by a faction sworn to destroy Israel.”

If so, one unanswered question was how this apparent flexibility was related to the Israeli-Hezbollah deal, whose success sent precisely the opposite message: that being tough with Israel brought more dividends.