The government is expected to decide today about the fate of the prisoner and missing persons exchange deal with Hezbollah. The main thrust of the deal is the release of 430 prisoners, mostly Palestinians, as well as some Lebanese and Jordanians, and the submission of maps of land mines that Israel left in Lebanon. In exchange, Israel will receive the remains of three Israel Defense Forces soldiers - Benny Avraham, Adi Avitan and Omer Suweid - who were kidnapped three years ago in the Har Dov area, along with a citizen, Elhanan Tannenbaum. Under the terms of the deal, Hezbollah will be "obligated" to find additional information about the fate of missing Israel Air Force navigator Ron Arad; this obligation lacks substance.
Though this is not the first time Israel has proposed exchanging prisoners for its own soldiers or citizens, the deal raises a number of troubling doubts and questions regarding its rationale. Unlike the case of previous exchange deals, Hezbollah - a terror organization that continues to threaten to kidnap more Israelis, should their government not assent to its demands - purports to represent not just Lebanese citizens, or its own prisoners who are incarcerated in Israel.
Hezbollah has positioned itself as the representative of countries that have, in the past, conducted negotiations with Israel about their prisoners. Hezbollah's demand for the release of Jordanian and Palestinian prisoners, as well as its demand (which was rejected) that Egyptian prisoners be freed, trespasses well beyond the norms of humanitarian exchange deals. This deal with Hezbollah is likely to have political repercussions that affect Israel's relations with neighboring states, and with the Palestinians.
Jordan, for example, has for half a year conducted talks with Israel about the release of 81 of its nationals who are incarcerated in Israel. The same applies to Egypt. For its part, the Palestinian Authority views the release of Palestinian prisoners into its own custody - not to Hezbollah - as a crucial gesture needed to move the peace process forward.
From the start of negotiations with Hezbollah, it was clear that Israel would be asked to release a large number of prisoners who are not Lebanese nationals. Though it knew this to be true, the government decided not to release Jordanian prisoners as a good-will gesture toward the Hashemite Kingdom; nor did it release Palestinian prisoners so that they could be welcomed by Abu Mazen, then Palestinian Authority prime minister, as a good-will gesture to prolong his government. Should the government decide to free such prisoners in accordance with Hezbollah's demands, it would lose the opportunity to enact good faith gestures toward the Jordanian government and the Palestinian leadership; and it would create a dangerous precedent that could play into the hands of terror organizations. The exchange deal would deliver maximum political capital to Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah; and it would cast Israel in the role of a state that surrenders to threatening dictates.
Though deference is due to the humanitarian aspects of the prisoner/missing persons exchange, there is no avoiding the conclusion that the impending deal is flawed. It would be wise to delay its implementation, to first complete negotiations with the Jordanians and Palestinians, and to limit the terms of the deal with Hezbollah to the freeing of Lebanese prisoners only. Doing so would put the deal on a logical framework - with regard to both its humanitarian and political dimensions.