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The execution of the prisoner exchange will be monitored closely from the Lebanese side of the Rosh Hanikra border crossing by its main shepherd: the UN-appointed mediator Gerhard Conrad. Little is known about the mystery man, who is in his forties. Even in Germany, where he holds a senior post in his country's foreign intelligence agency, BND, few know much about him. Before his name was publicized in Israel a little over a year ago, the German public was unaware of his existence.

Officially, Conrad's mediation effort has been on behalf of the UN secretary general, because the return of Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser is part of Security Council Resolution 1701, which brought an end to the Second Lebanon War.

Conrad learned Arabic in Damascus as part of his intelligence training. In fact, he is among the very few Arabic speakers in the BND. That training destined him to serve in the agency's Middle East department. Among other missions, he was sent in 1998 to serve, under diplomatic cover, as the BND's official representative in Damascus, which role included responsibility for Lebanon. Consequently, he is well informed regarding developments in both countries, and has met several times with Hezbollah leaders, including the movement's secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah.

Conrad's wife also works for the BND, and the couple worked together in Damascus.

Since the 1990s, Conrad has played a part in every prisoner swap between Israel and Hezbollah in which the BND and German officials were involved as mediators.

His two predecessors in the role of chief mediator - first Bernd Schmidbauer, and then, in the Elhanan Tennenbaum deal, Ernst Uhrlau (today the BND chief) - were German government officials who served as liaisons between the chancellor's office and the country's secret services. As a result, their political affiliations were known and they kept a relatively high profile. Gerhard Conrad, by contrast, is an intelligence officer on active duty, so he keeps a low profile and operates mysteriously behind the scenes.

His key contact is the Israeli government's coordinator for the hostages in Lebanon and Gaza, Ofer Dekel, with whom he has met numerous times - mainly in Europe, but also on several occasions in Israel.

Conrad was involved in the deals mediated by Schmidbauer and Uhrlau, both while he was BND representative in Syria and Lebanon and after his return to headquarters. To a great extent, he served as their man in the field.

The Conrads returned from their Damascus posting in 2001. Back at BND headquarters, Conrad worked in the research and analysis department and continued to follow the talks between Israel and Hezbollah. He was also active in the effort to obtain information on the fate of Israeli navigator Ron Arad, missing since his plane was shot down over Lebanon in 1986.

At some point, Conrad got to know then UN secretary general Kofi Annan, and in the wake of the Second Lebanon War, Annan asked the German government to loan him a professional to serve as his envoy to the hostage negotiations. The BND loaned Conrad to the chancellor's office, which loaned him in turn to the UN.

A German source who knows him well said that Conrad speaks several languages, knows Hezbollah and the Arab world well, and possesses integrity, an iron patience and diplomatic and organizational skills - all the qualities that allowed him not to despair of mediating a deal whose odds appeared impossible.

What is perhaps surprising about this whole story is that Hezbollah has been willing for 15 years to view the BND as a "fair" middleman, even though the agency has been known for decades to be friendly to the Mossad and Israeli interests. This can only attest to the integrity and professionalism of BND officers like Gerhard Conrad.