About a month ago, Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom made a big impression when he announced that the prisoner exchange deal between Israel and the Lebanon-based Hezbollah organization would probably be concluded by the Jewish holidays, and that the prisoners "will celebrate the next holiday at home."
The holidays have come and gone, the Ramadan fast has begun, and it now appears that Shalom was referring to Id el-Fitr, which concludes the month of Ramadan. According to Hezbollah, one item is holding up the completion of the deal - the list of the names of the 400 Palestinian prisoners Israel will release. All the other matters - the return of the Lebanese prisoners, the transmission of the maps showing the landmines that Israel left behind in southern Lebanon, the release of the Jordanian prisoners - have already been concluded and signed. That, at least, is what Hezbollah spokesmen are saying.
The dispute generated by the question of the price is a natural one. One of the main arguments against the release of the prisoners is that such a move will confer prestige on Hezbollah, and this is liable to result in more abductions and encourage other organizations, especially Palestinian groups, to adopt the same methods. On the face of it, this would seem to be a logical argument. In fact, it is not.
Palestinian organizations such as Hamas abducted soldiers and Border Policemen before Hezbollah, and Yemenite organizations, along with Chechen and South American groups, made abductions a high-revenue profession. This is not an exclusive Hezbollah patent that is liable to be "stolen" by the Palestinians.
More important, Hezbollah seems to be even more eager than Israel to implement the deal. The organization's secretary-general, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, has stated three times in the past two months that he will stop the negotiations if Israel does not show a more flexible attitude regarding its terms. Each time he has continued the negotiations, threatening to abduct more Israelis or to hide more information if Israel doesn't make headway. All the reports about the course of the negotiations have come from Hezbollah and not from Israel, along with a pledge to bring all the Lebanese prisoners home.
From Hezbollah's viewpoint, the release of the prisoners is one of the great unfulfilled promises it made after the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon. This is one promise for which Hezbollah does not need the backing of Syria or Iran, nor does it place the organization on a collision course with the Lebanese public, as is the case when Hezbollah attacks Israeli outposts. Here, everything depends only on the will of Nasrallah, who wants to bite off more than he can chew. For example, bringing in the Jordanian prisoners heightened tensions between Jordan and Israel, which even before had conducted intensive negotiations on the release of the Jordanian nationals Israel is holding; Egypt informed Hezbollah that it does want its auspices; the Palestinian leadership is not pleased that Hezbollah, of all groups, may be able to bring about the release of prisoners whom the Palestinian Authority was not able to free; and Hezbollah is again showing the Lebanese government to be impotent and incapable of looking after its citizens.
Nasrallah's ambition is liable to torpedo the deal and thereby teach the sides an important lesson in the dubious benefit of holding prisoners as bargaining chips. The origin of the mistake may have been Israel's agreement to conduct negotiations with an organization, and not to stipulate that the government of Lebanon is the sole partner for talks, as the people in question are Lebanese citizens and not "citizens" of an organization. By taking that line, Israel could have placed the issue of the captives and prisoners on the international agenda and not confined it to negotiations between a state and an organization.
Another wrongheaded move was to postpone the arrangement with Jordan about its prisoners until they became hostages of Hezbollah, and thus also adversely affecting Jordan's status. It's possible that thanks to Hezbollah's intransigence, Israel may be able to bring about a shift in the way the negotiations are being conducted: to renew the talks with the Palestinian Authority on the release of prisoners and to reach a separate agreement with Jordan on the freeing of its citizens. In this way it will at least be possible to reduce considerable the damage caused by the give-and-take with Hezbollah.
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