GOC Northern Command Benny Gantz likes to surprise visitors from overseas by referring to Hezbollah as an NGO, or nongovernmental organization. Foreigners tend to view such organizations positively, imagining groups like the International Red Cross or Amnesty International. Gantz reminds them that Lebanon contains an NGO of a different type - violent and deadly.
Ariel Sharon has signed a tainted agreement with the head of this NGO, Hassan Nasrallah; and despite the German mediator, it is truly a Sharon-Nasrallah deal - just as Menachem Begin concluded the cease-fire with Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat in July 1981, following two weeks of PLO shelling of Kiryat Shmona, even though it was mediated by American Philip Habib and the Saudi royal family.
Israel ought to speak with governments, not organizations. In its negotiations with Arafat over the Oslo Accord, the Rabin government viewed the PLO as the Palestinian government-in-the-making, recognizing it as the Palestinians' official representative. Now, Sharon has recognized Hezbollah as the official representative of the Lebanese. It is Nasrallah, rather than President Emile Lahoud or Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, with whom the prime minister negotiates the release of Lebanese prisoners from Israeli jails.
The American government behaves differently: It demands that the Lebanese government take action against terrorist organizations that appear on the State Department's blacklist. Hezbollah occupies a place of dishonor on this list thanks to the activities of Imad Mughniyeh, who has been the impresario of the organization's attacks since as far back as the 1980s.
The government in Beirut avoided punishing people who kidnapped or killed Americans during those years, on the grounds that they are covered by the amnesty that was declared at the end of Lebanon's civil war. But the Americans did not let up. Under pressure, Hariri finally took up the battle, but only against Sunni organizations such as Asbat al-Ansar, which is believed to be an affiliate of the global jihad network centered around Al-Qaida. Hezbollah he has not touched, even though the Taif Accord, which was signed 15 years ago, requires that all Lebanese organizations be divested of their armed militias.
To add insult to injury, Sharon has also recognized Hezbollah as the official representative of all the Arabs. Israeli folktales of the 1950s included a dubious character called Shulman Yeshalem ("Shulman will pay"), who paid bills without investigating their validity. Sharon has turned Hezbollah's leader into "Nasrallah Yenaser" ("Nasrallah will saw") - a one-man parole board who saws through the prison bars for all Arabs.
Diplomatic logic would dictate a reverse order: First Israel should determine its regional strategy, then derive its Syrian-Lebanese policy from this strategy, and finally, within this context, determine its position with regard to an exchange of prisoners and bodies.
Without an overall strategy, every player in the government determines his own policy. Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom is working, especially in Europe, to force Syria to remove its troops from Lebanon, and the Europeans are having trouble explaining why Israel's occupation of Palestinian territory since 1967 is bad, while Syria's occupation of Lebanese territory since 1976 is good.
The Israel Defense Forces' General Staff, in a war game conducted last week, reached conclusions for its own use: If the conflict with the Palestinians escalates and operations in Gaza are needed, it would be better to confine these operations to raids and not get embroiled in an invasion; the Palestinian Authority is not functioning, but its existence is preferable to a Hamas regime; and in the north, it is better to exercise restraint than to be dragged into a major escalation.
Sharon's agreement with Nasrallah was much less considered. It reflects problematic judgment, a pursuit of transient headlines. Sharon's defense in the criminal affairs that are tightening around his neck focuses on the claim that if anyone did try to bribe him, he was unaware of it. That might, barely, suffice to prevent a conviction, but not to justify his continued tenure as prime minister. Someone incapable of understanding the intentions of David Appel is not shrewd enough to represent Israel in negotiations with Hassan Nasrallah and Bashar Assad.
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