This week, Israel was gradually pushed into making a decision on a dilemma it had evaded in the previous prisoner transaction with Hezbollah, the one that brought about the return of Colonel (res.) Elhanan Tenenbaum. Almost four years later, the Tenenbaum exchange is beginning to look like the mother of all sins. Not only because of the price it exacted (the release of 430 prisoners, most of them Palestinians), its format (living prisoners in exchange for the bodies of three abducted soldiers), or its goal (the release of a businessman who admitted to having gone to Lebanon to trade in drugs).
The exchange still haunts Israel because of its unrealized "phase 2," at whose center lay a dubious maneuver: In order to effect Tenenbaum's release, Ariel Sharon, the prime minister at the time, agreed to drop what until then had seemed to be an inviolable Israeli demand - information about the fate of missing air force navigator Ron Arad. In order to kosher the deal for the Israeli public, a legal gimmick was devised: As part of phase 2, Israel agreed to a future release of Samir Kuntar, who perpetrated a terrorist attack in Nahariya in 1979 (without that agreement, the Tenenbaum deal would probably not have gone through), but made this conditional on "substantive and concrete" information from Hezbollah about the fate of Ron Arad, who, in the assessment of most Israeli intelligence officials, is no longer alive.
Both the political echelon and the defense establishment knew there was little likelihood that Hezbollah would deliver the goods - and some politicians were skeptical, too - but the prime minister was determined. His obligation to a Jew rotting in captivity - any Jew - overcame every other consideration.
The information transmitted by Hezbollah in the year following Tenenbaum's return did not help put an end to the affair. And what Hezbollah failed to obtain in 2004 induced the organization to carry out the 2006 abduction, as a consequence of which it may get what it wants (Kuntar) in 2008. Cynics may well ask whether it was worth getting entangled in the Second Lebanon War just to keep Kuntar (however loathsome he may be) in prison for an extra few years. Kuntar is the last bargaining chip left to the Arad family. The equation that emerged by midweek looked quite clear: Kuntar in return for Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, the two abducted soldiers. This week's speech by Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah also indicated that he wants to close the Arad file and move on to the next stage, the next transaction.
The speech, which was once again filmed at a secret location, was replete with positive declarations. Hezbollah's secretary general talked about "positive progress" and "concrete progress," indicating his optimism, and described "vigorous and continuous negotiations," which "will be renewed in the coming days." The relatively detailed report marked a departure for Nasrallah, as compared with earlier deals. The reason may lie not only in the talks' progress. The Shi'ite leader's political status in the land of the cedars is complex. In the eyes of Lebanon's other communities, he is the person responsible for almost bringing about the country's destruction, by getting Lebanon involved in the 2006 war with Israel. What he got in return is far from commensurate to the damage he wrought: two bodies and a schizophrenic prisoner, in this week's transaction.
The prisoners Kuntar and Nissim Nasser, as well as the missing terrorist Yahya Skaf, have not yet been returned. The promise Nasrallah made in the speech he delivered immediately after the outbreak of the war, that their release was closer than ever, remains unfulfilled.
A comprehensive prisoner exchange might restore Nasrallah to what he considers to be his natural place: at the heart of the Lebanese
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