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Copyright 2003 Jerusalem Post
October 2

HEADLINE: Prisoners' dilemma


Despite the conventional wisdom, the intense negotiations between Hizbullah and Israel on an exchange of prisoners and repatriation of the remains of combatants should not be seen as a step towards building trust and reducing the level of hostility.

If and when an agreement is reached and implemented, such positive political and security spillover is highly unlikely. Past agreements with implacable enemies, such as Syria, or with terrorist organizations, including the PLO, did not mark any change in strategy, tactics or objectives, and the attacks continued as before.

Similarly, an agreement with Hizbullah is unlikely to signal a change of heart by its fundamentalist leadership, or an end to its involvement in terrorism.

Nevertheless, political and even strategic issues play an important role in these negotiations, and Israeli decision makers need to pay attention to the details.

The fact that the renewed negotiations were initiated by Hizbullah is important, reflecting both pressure from Europe (Germany is acting as the main mediator in the negotiations) and a decline in this group's internal position within Lebanon. There is growing pressure from the families of the 18 Lebanese held by Israel, and the hope for information on the four Iranian government officials who disappeared in Beirut in 1982.

The detainees include Sheikh Abdul Karim Obeid, who was the leader of Hizbullah in South Lebanon until captured by Israel, and Mustafa Dirani, who held Ron Arad captive for two years after his plane was shot down. With the exception of the Hizbullah extremists, most Lebanese have long since tired of being used as a battlefield for attacks against Israel, and the costs that are incurred. Three years after Israel withdrew unilaterally from the South Lebanon security zone, Hizbullah has increasing difficulty justifying its existence as a military (and terrorist) organization and is more vulnerable to this kind of internal pressure.

Indeed, despite the rhetoric of violence and fanatical hatred, Hassan Nasrallah, Hizbullah's leader, has been forced to restrain his actions.

THREE YEARS ago, when Yasser Arafat began the current campaign of Palestinian terror, Hizbullah had planned to open a second front against Israel, supported by its sponsors in Syria and Iran. This did not take place, and whenever sporadic attacks have led to casualties, the Israeli military response has been immediate and strong.

The threat to retaliate against Syria has demonstrated the effectiveness of deterrence, which is strengthened by intense American pressure on Damascus and Teheran to restrain their Lebanese clients. In this environment, Hizbullah's serious attempts to negotiate a realistic prisoner exchange with Israel now, after many years of refusal, can, in part, be seen as further evidence of tactical decline.

However, an agreement could have the opposite effect of restoring the role of Hizbullah, if it is seen as a triumph that includes the release of hundreds of Palestinians. The televised images of terrorists being released from Israeli jails would allow Nasrallah to claim credit as a champion who succeeded where Palestinian leaders, including Arafat, failed. This would inject new life and confidence in Hizbullah, reversing the gradual decline in its influence.

As a result, for the Israeli government, an agreement and exchange with Hizbullah will be highly problematic, with few if any political payoffs.

Any move that strengthens Hizbullah and discharges Palestinian terrorists from Israeli jails - even those without "blood on their hands" - will be difficult to justify. The prospects of the release of Dirani and Obeid without the return of Ron Arad has already led to protests and legal action to block such an agreement, and would be widely criticized by many Israelis.

The angry condemnation following the 1985 agreement with Ahmed Jibril's Popular Front, in which three Israelis were exchanged for 1,150 Palestinians, many of whom returned to terrorism, remains a strong reminder of the costs.

During the Oslo process, and, more recently, at the start of the failed road map negotiations, many Palestinian detainees released by Israel also returned to terror, including the Caf Hillel and Tzrifim bombers.

FURTHERMORE, IF agreement is reached which includes the release of terrorists in German jails, this would create additional negative political and strategic repercussions for Israel, particularly in terms of relations with Iran. The terrorists who bombed a Berlin restaurant on September 17, 1992, killing four political opponents, reportedly acted on orders from the Iranian regime, with the approval of Ayatollah Khamanei and Hashemi Rafsanjani.

If this group is released now, it would reduce the political and diplomatic isolation of the fundamentalist regime in Teheran, thereby weakening the moderate or reformist groups. This move would also soften the European pressure on Iran to end its effort to acquire nuclear weapons at a critical time.

In other words, in each of these dimensions - the ongoing confrontation with Hizbullah, its attempt to increase its visibility in terms of Palestinian issues, and with respect to Iran, there are few if any political or security-related benefits for Israel. On the contrary, an agreement is likely to work against Israeli interests, and, based on previous experience, could trigger a round of attacks from Hizbullah from Lebanon (to demonstrate the continued hostility), as well as expanded cooperation with Palestinian terror groups.

In addition, the international pressure to isolate Iran and impose economic sanctions would lose momentum, as would the effort to capture the Iranian officials responsible for bombing the Israeli embassy and Jewish center in Buenos Aires.

While these factors do not entirely negate the importance of the proposed prisoner exchange, they have led to an intense debate in Israel and demands for justification.

In the IDF, the moral and ethical principle of collective responsibility for each and every soldier, alive or dead, is extremely important, and it is clear that there is a price for return of the captured prisoners.

If Ron Arad or any of the other Israeli MIAs captured and held in Lebanon is miraculously returned alive, there will be little criticism. But for anything less, the balance remains unclear, and the risks must be carefully measured against the benefits.

The writer is the director, Program on Conflict Management and Negotiation, political studies department at Bar-Ilan University.

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