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Copyright 2004 Haaretz
January 25

HEADLINE: Analysis / Bend it like Hezbollah

BYLINE: Ze'ev Schiff

The successful completion of the first stage in the prisoner-exchange with Hezbollah, which is scheduled to end by Friday, shows that this organization knows how to restrain itself when put under pressure and its interests are at stake.

Hezbollah scored certain achievements in the deal, but was also forced to renounce some demands until it can prove it had made maximum effort to get substantial information about Israeli navigator Ron Arad. In addition to the Germans' skillful mediation, the Syrians joined in adding last-minute pressure to finalize the deal.

The deal's completion raises two questions. One is whether the Israel Defense Force's last operation against Hezbollah outposts in south Lebanon had an effect on the results of the talks, or did the Hezbollah ambush on the Israeli force, preceding the strike, affect the talks? The second question is whether the legal and public pressure on Prime Minister Ariel Sharon led Israel to increase its concessions, so that the prisoner deal overshadows the press reports on the expected bribe trial.

The answer to both questions is in the negative. Hezbollah's ambush is perceived as a local, tactical move rather than a broader scheme to exacerbate the border situation to pressure Israel in the negotiations. But Hezbollah's involvement in terror in the territories and penetration of Fatah is a strategic move expected to cause difficult problems in the future.

As for the second question, the Prime Minister's Bureau has not recently increased its involvement in the negotiations, nor has there been any pressure to make concessions. On a number of points, Israel even insisted on more than before.

Hezbollah apparently was the side pushing to end the first stage of the deal before the Muslim Id al-Adha [feast of the sacrifice] holiday begins next week. Both sides managed to fulfill the German mediator's demand to stop leaking details to avoid political pressures.

One of Israel's concessions was agreeing to release some 400 Palestinian prisoners to Hezbollah, after refusing to do so as a gesture to the Palestinian Authority, or to its former prime minister Abu Mazen, who had been willing to fight terrorism. The prisoners' release as part of the talks with Hezbollah gives the group a significant victory. It is seen as a triumph among the Palestinians and in the Arab world.

Israel, however, insisted to the end that the released Palestinian prisoners would not include any with "blood on their hands," i.e. prisoners convicted of killing people.

Presumably Israel will give the list of those to be released to the German mediator, who will give it to Hezbollah. In exchange, Hezbollah will release Colonel Elhanan Tennenbaum, whom it took captive and moved to Lebanon after he was enticed to a Persian Gulf state for business.

Hezbollah pressured Israel to release three people in the first round - senior Hezbollah officer Mustafa Dirani, who held Ran Arad until he handed him over, for a large sum of money, to the Iranians, and Sheikh Abd al Karim Obeid, who was taken hostage by Israel and imprisoned. The third prisoner is Samir Kuntar, who was captured after the killing in Nahariya of the father and daughter of the Haran family.

Israel conceded to releasing the first two in the first round with the Palestinian prisoners, but dug in its heels about Kuntar. Hezbollah undertook to make an effort to get more information about the fate of Arad.

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