ANALYSIS / Nasrallah preparing for Kuntar's homecoming
A pending agreement can be attributed both to Israel's tough stance and Hezbollah's domestic success.
The statements made by Hezbollah chief Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah at the end of April 2006 were the same as those in his speech Monday: "We are going to meet Samir Kuntar very soon." Two and a half months later, Hezbollah operatives kidnapped reserve soldiers Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser.
But Monday's statements were made in an entirely different context: They may constitute an agreement in principle to an Israeli offer.
Israel can give relatively few "assets" in exchange for Regev and Goldwasser. The hundreds of Palestinian prisoners will wait for a deal with Hamas in return for releasing kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit, who is known to be alive.
On the assumption that the deal includes the return of six live Lebanese and 10 bodies, what does that say about Regev and Goldwasser? The news is not good. Israel has paid with hundreds, even thousands of prisoners for living captives.
A pending agreement can be attributed both to Israel's tough stance and Hezbollah's domestic success in Lebanon. When it comes to Hezbollah, Israel is operating differently than in talks over Shalit: it has refused to bow to pressure without receiving a sign of life.
As for Nasrallah, his domestic victory allows him some room for maneuver. Monday's speech showed that Hezbollah has mostly recovered from the war, as Brigadier-General Yossi Baidatz, the head of Military Intelligence's research unit, told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.
The disarming of Hamas is not on the table and the organization is once again part of the Lebanese cabinet. Nasrallah has proven himself, and can back down from his demand to release Palestinians. If he secures the return of Kuntar and the other Lebanese, the Palestinian prisoners can wait for Hamas.
One obstacle does remain: Kuntar was the "bargaining chip" for information about missing airman Ron Arad. His family could mount a last-ditch public campaign, which, even if it does not stop the swap, will engender emotional public debate. Another question is how progress toward a Hezbollah deal will affect a Shalit exchange. Hamas seems in no hurry to close a prisoner deal with Israel. Will the broadcast of Kuntar's homecoming celebrations spur Hamas on?