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Copyright 2003 Haaretz
September 23

HEADLINE: Analysis / Not so fast in tortuous talks

BYLINE: Ze'ev Schiff

Hezbollah and Palestinian sources are saying the expected prisoner exchange between Israel and the Lebanese organization will include Palestinians, including Tanzim leader Marwan Barghouti, who is on trial in Israel, but officials here are saying no decisions in principle have been made yet.

The negotiations with Hezbollah are still underway and various proposals have come up, but Israel is still sticking to its refusal to include Palestinians, and certainly not senior officials like Barghouti, perceived as having "blood on their hands."

In addition to the difficult negotiations, Hezbollah is conducting an unusual psychological campaign, with the personal involvement of Hassan Nasrallah. The organization's leader responds quickly to the mood in Israel and often sends soothing messages to the Israeli public, like his indirect announcement Hezbollah would do all it can to find information about missing navigator Ron Arad.

Israel is meanwhile maintaining near absolute silence, except for a few details reported about the meeting between Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and the Arad family.

Both sides are interested in a successful conclusion to the negotiations, each for their own reasons. Nasrallah is also under pressure from families that lost a son or a disappeared person. He has an interest in proving that in addition to the Lebanese prisoners he is concerned about others, particularly Palestinians, and to demonstrate he is an pan-Arab leader who can find solutions other leaders can't.

His propaganda campaign has managed to grow rumors spread by Hamas and others about prisoner releases, and the Hezbollah and Palestinians hurried to put the cart before the horse, on the assumption that they could force a change in Israel's positions. Jerusalem might be interested in a deal with Hezbollah, and regards the successful conclusion of the negotiations as a positive step politically, but it faces a number of problems, legal and moral.

In recent days there have been reports, mostly from Palestinian sources, that Marwan Barghouti might be included in the deal. There have been no comments from the Israeli side. Nor has there been any high-level discussion of the matter, and none of the relevant agencies have been asked to present their view. One argument being heard is that Barghouti is a leader with whom it is possible to cut a deal and reach an end to Tanzim violence, so it would be worth releasing him.

On the other hand, he is still on trial and the Shin Bet regards him as someone with blood on his hands. A ministerial committee on freeing Palestinian prisoners has already decided that such people will not be released from Israeli jails as a goodwill gesture.

The early instructions were for negotiations with Hezbollah to focus on Lebanese and do everything possible to prevent the talks leading to the difficult Palestinian issue. It is preferable to free Palestinians in a direct and large deal with the Palestinians rather than granting the Hezbollah a "card" that will only strengthen them in Palestinian eyes, and in particular in the eyes of the Hamas and Tanzim.

Hezbollah wants to penetrate the ranks of both those organizations to encourage them to step up terror activity against Israel, inside the country. The proposal to include Palestinian prisoners was raised by the German mediator at the last meeting. It was brought to Israel and presented to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon but so far no discussion has been held in the security cabinet on the issue. If Israel agreed, it would be a great change in policy, even without the question of how many Palestinians would be released, let alone why they were put in jail in the first place.

The issue of Ron Arad is also problematic. His family was told that the prisoner exchange should take place even though no new information has been provided regarding Arad's fate. The relatives, who found support from Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, say that if Israel releases Mustafa Dirani, who once held Arad and then "sold" him to the Iranians, Israel will have essentially given up Arad. And that would be a blow to the moral underpinnings of IDF policy on freeing its PoWs wherever they are.

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