Israel will not release Palestinian prisoners in exchange for two soldiers kidnapped by Hezbollah, it recently informed the Lebanese organization. And if Hezbollah continues to insist that Palestinians be included in the deal, Israel may break off the negotiations, a senior official familiar with the talks told Haaretz.
In that case, the official said, Israel would have to evaluate whatever intelligence it has about the two soldiers and decide whether it justifies declaring them dead.
Udi Goldwasser and Eldad Regev were kidnapped by Hezbollah in a cross-border raid on July 12, 2006. Their abduction ignited the Second Lebanon War. Since the war, Israel and Hezbollah have been conducting indirect negotiations on a prisoner swap via a German mediator, Gerhard Konrad. Ofer Dekel, who Prime Minister Ehud Olmert appointed to conduct the talks for Israel, frequently meets with Konrad in Europe.
Israel recently asked Konrad to give Hezbollah what it termed its "final offer": In exchange for the two soldiers, or their bodies if they are dead, Israel will release Lebanese prisoners. Israel would also return the bodies of Hezbollah members buried in Israel, but would not release any Palestinians.
"From Israel's perspective, we have reached the outermost limits of the negotiations," the senior official said. "The ball is now in Hezbollah's court, and it must make a decision."
Throughout the talks, Hezbollah has insisted that Israel release thousands of Palestinians in addition to the Lebanese prisoners. But this would strengthen the radical Shi'ite organization's standing among Palestinians and the Arab world as a whole, which Israel does not want to do, the official explained.
If Hezbollah insists on including Palestinian prisoners, the official added, that will bring about "an end to the negotiations because there will no longer be anything to talk about." In that case, Israel would have to consider classifying Regev and Goldwasser not as MIAs but as fallen soldiers whose place of burial is unknown.
The Israel Defense Forces' chief rabbi is responsible for making this decision, but it must be based on solid intelligence and medical information indicating that the two are dead - which the IDF does not yet believe it has.
Until a few months ago, Dekel had been hinting to Hezbollah that Israel might include Palestinians in the deal if it received a sign of life from the kidnapped soldiers. The assumption at that time had been that the deal would be conducted in two stages: first a sign of life, then the actual return of the soldiers.
In the almost two years since the kidnapping, however, Hezbollah has consistently refused to provide any sign of life, and Israel is now convinced that it has no intention of ever doing so.
"But from our experience in the talks and in past deals with Hezbollah," the senior official cautioned, "our assessment is that only on the day of the deal will we know for sure whether they are alive or not."
In addition to Kuntar - who is not a Hezbollah member, and whose terror attack was carried out on behalf of a Palestinian group, the Palestine Liberation Front - Israel currently holds four Hezbollah militants who were captured during the Second Lebanon War. In addition, the bodies of about 10 Hezbollah militants who were killed in clashes with the IDF are buried here.
But Kuntar is by far the most prominent Lebanese prisoner in Israel. For the past decade, Hezbollah has demanded that Kuntar be part of every prisoner swap it conducted with Israel, but Israel has consistently refused, saying that Kuntar would be released only in exchange for information on air force navigator Ron Arad, who has been missing since his plane was shot down over Lebanon in 1986.
Until now, Israel's position has prevailed. Thus Kuntar was not released in the last swap with Hezbollah, in 2003, when Israel freed some 400 other Lebanese and Palestinian prisoners in exchange for kidnapped businessman Elhanan Tennenbaum and the bodies of three kidnapped soldiers, Benny Avraham, Omar Suweid and Adi Avitan. Instead, it was agreed that Kuntar would be released as part of a follow-up deal in exchange for information on Arad.
Israel has now apparently dropped its objection to releasing Kuntar. But the senior official insisted that even if it is compelled to trade Kuntar for Regev and Goldwasser, Israel will still demand that Hezbollah keep its promise to supply information on Arad's fate.
Independent of any prisoner swap, Israel soon plans to release Nissim Nasser and deport him to Lebanon, Haaretz has learned. Nasser is a Jew who converted to Islam but then managed to immigrate from Lebanon to Israel. Nasser was convicted of spying for Hezbollah and sentenced to six years prison, but recently completed his sentence.
The defense establishment had considered continuing to hold him as an administrative detainee and use him as another bargaining chip in the negotiations for the abducted soldiers, but after consultations with the Justice Ministry it concluded that it could not legally do so. And in any case, he was of no real value in the negotiations, defense officials said.
Israel's message to Hezbollah:
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