Not Just a Gesture

Hezbollah chief successfully plays down Israeli claims that Nassim Nasser wasn't swapped for body parts.

"Nassim Nasser was freed in exchange for the body parts of Israeli soldiers," said the Web site of the Hezbollah-owned Al-Manar television station, adding that the swap was the first stage of negotiations.

In making such a statement, Hezbollah is trying to undermine the Israeli position that it does not negotiate for body parts; the Israeli explanations that Nasser was due to be released anyway for legal reasons are not self-evident in Lebanon.

To judge by reports in the Arab press, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has succeeded in selling his take on the prisoner swap, whereby there are no goodwill gestures, just tough negotiations in which Nasrallah is getting a live prisoner in exchange for body parts.

Nasrallah's negotiating tactics should be no surprise. The rule that no goodwill gestures or "gifts" are granted to the enemy remains intact, he says. Thus the exchange does not seem to be a last-minute decision, as it appeared from the way the remains were transferred, but the result of an earlier plan waiting only for the moment when Nassim Nasser returned to Lebanese soil.

Sunday's visit to Lebanon by German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who is familiar with negotiations between Israel and Hezbollah, may have influenced the return of the remains, but a Lebanese source said the influence was "marginal" in the game being played by Nasrallah. That's because Nasrallah is not trying to demonstrate his capabilities to Israel alone.

The Hezbollah leader still has a score to settle with the new Lebanese president, Michel Suleiman, who mentioned the return of all the prisoners during his speech at his swearing-in ceremony. Nasrallah is not willing to let the president of Lebanon win the prisoner jackpot; those prisoners are considered Hezbollah's private asset, not the Lebanese government's.

The timing of the major deal depends on the concessions Nasrallah will be willing to make vis-a-vis the Israeli offer. His decision is bound to take into account how he will be able to reap as large a political bounty as possible, both within Lebanon and abroad.

This political bounty was damaged in January, when Nasrallah made one of his biggest propaganda mistakes ever. The "body parts speech," which he made in his first public appearance since the Second Lebanon War, sparked fierce criticism of Nasrallah, in Arab countries as well as in Israel.

"This great religion, Islam, never spoke about people like replacement parts," wrote Saudi publicist Ali Sa'ad al-Mussi in Al Wattan shortly after the speech, and similar sentiments were published in other Arab newspapers. A Lebanese pundit close to Hezbollah said that since the piercing criticism, Nasrallah has refrained from speaking publicly about body parts. He said this can be seen in the little attention the Hezbollah-run media gave to the return of the remains, compared with the media frenzy surrounding Nasser's return.