Copyright 2003 Jerusalem Post
HEADLINE: Hizbullah accuses Israel of 'procrastination' on swap
BYLINE: MATTHEW GUTMAN
Hizbullah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah said late Tuesday he would no longer tolerate Israel's "procrastination" on the impending prisoner swap, threatening that his group would repatriate its men, with or without the exchange.
Hizbullah analysts in Israel saw the comment as an attempt to ratchet up the pressure on Israel, while at the same time brandishing the threat of additional abductions. In return for the release of hundreds of Lebanese, Palestinian, and other Arab prisoners, Israel hopes to bring home Lt.-Col. (res) Elhanan Tannenbaum and the bodies of three soldiers, St.-Sgts. Benny Avraham, Adi Avitan, and Omar Sawayid, who were abducted in October 2000.
"Our message is clear. Time is passing. I want to say clearly that Hizbullah will not bear more procrastination," Nasrallah told followers at a Women Social Solidarity charity organization meeting. He had refrained from mentioning the impending swap for two weeks, following criticism by the German mediators of Israeli and Hizbullah leaks.
"We reiterate and stress our decisive and final commitment in the case of returning these dear prisoners to their families and homes by negotiations or else without negotiations," Reuters quoted Nasrallah as saying.
"Our conditions are clear and final, and our demands are clear and final....
"More procrastination means that the Israelis, in another way, are saying to us that the operation is over and you must move to other choices."
The security establishment takes the threats of "other choices" very seriously, said Eitan Azani, a veteran of the intelligence community and a research fellow at the International Policy Institute for Counter Terrorism.
"This is a threat to kidnap Israelis, nothing more or less," he said.
The threat follows a similar Nasrallah speech in July, when he said he is ready to negotiate, or to begin kidnapping Israelis.
"He is telling us two things here," Azani said. "First, that Israel better get its story straight: Do we want Tannenbaum or not. Second, that he is under internal pressure and is willing to do almost anything to break it, including kidnapping more Israelis."
Hizbullah has traditionally sought to secure prisoner swaps just before major events, such as elections, or currently, Id al-Fitr, the festival ending the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
On Monday, the Lebanese daily Al-Mustaqbal quoted a Hizbullah source as promising to have the Lebanese prisoners home by the last week of November.
According to Matthew Levitt, senior research fellow in Terrorism Studies at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Nasrallah's target audience is not in Beirut, but in Jerusalem. "This is his way of lighting a fire under the Israeli politic, because Nasrallah is wary of losing the deal," he said.
With chief Israeli negotiator Ilan Biran off to Germany, Levitt said, Nasrallah is telling Israel that this is the final round of negotiations, that his time and patience are running out.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has said he fully supports the deal. However, dissent over its price has mounted since the High Court of Justice lifted a ban on publishing the events leading to Tannenbaum's abduction.
A public outcry arose over Tannenbaum's tarnished past and the dubious business scheme that led him into the hands of Iranian and Hizbullah agents in Abu Dhabi.
"All this talk about Tannenbaum's worthlessness makes Nasrallah very uncomfortable," Levitt said.
Sharon has kept his cabinet out of the negotiating process, refusing to reveal many parameters of the deal.
Sources close to him say he fears that his ministers might leak critical elements that would generate much criticism, both in Israel and from the German mediators.
Others have said Sharon is concerned that Israel's concessions to repatriate Tannenbaum might make the deal difficult to swallow for the Israeli public.
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