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Copyright 2004 Jerusalem Post
January 26

HEADLINE: Analysis: German mediation was the key


By default and by happenstance, the Germans became the likeliest and surest of possible negotiators for a prisoner exchange. While Israel had throughout the 1980s engaged in somewhat direct negotiations with Hizbullah and the Shi'ite militia Amal, by the early 1990s all these mechanisms had broken down, and the search was on for a mediator.

Unlike the Americans, the Germans had not been traumatized nor their relations with Hizbullah tarnished by massive bombings in Beirut, nor the kidnapping of high-level CIA staffers, like Beirut bureau chief William Buckley or Col. William Higgins. With friction between Beirut and Washington high, the US could not be a conduit to the Bekaa Valley.

The Germans maintained good relations with Lebanon, Iran, and Hizbullah throughout the period. A large and influential Iranian community lives in Germany, and while keeping Iran at arms length, the Kohl administration also granted it trade guarantees in the mid-1990s.

Iranian President Muhammad Khatami even served as head of the Hamburg Islamic Center in 1979.

Former president Hashemi Rafsanjani was said to have very close business ties with the European states, Germany in particular.

The responsibility for the mediation fell onto Germany not only because many of the other European states' intelligence services had fallen into a state of some disrepute, but because the Ron Arad file was considered among the most precious of the world's intelligence prizes.

Much of the shuttling and negotiating for the three soldiers and Tannenbaum was not done by Ernst Uhrlau, the German official who announced the deal, but on August Henning, the chief of the Federal Intelligence Service (BND). Henning and his deputies shuttled among Beirut, Iran, Cyprus, Berlin, and even Israel dozens of times, trying to get the two sides to agree.

Henning had served under the former coordinator of the intelligence agencies, Bernd Schmidtbauer, an appointee of former chancellor Helmut Kohl.

Schmidtbauer, known as "008" in the office due to his predilection for secrecy and an aversion to bureaucracy, had helped mediate the repatriation of Sgts. Rahamim Alsheikh and Yosef Fink in 1996, and created the format upon which the latest prisoner swap was engineered.

Schmidtbauer and Henning also aided in the June 1998 swap in which Israel received three fallen naval commandos, and Hizbullah received, among others, the remains of Nasrallah's son, Hadi. According to German sources, this secured Nasrallah's confidence in the German mediators.

When in 1998 Gerhard Schroeder was elected chancellor, he dumped Schmidtbauer in favor of Uhrlau. But Henning stayed, remaining the vital link.

Still the process of negotiations was tortuous from the start. The first hints of German involvement were published in Lebanese papers in early December 2000. They trumpeted that the deal could be sealed in 10 days.

What followed was more than three years of haggling, purposeful leaks to embarrass or pressure one side or the other, and threats by Hizbullah to kidnap additional Israelis.

This time, the price for the swap was inflated because Hizbullah had a prized commodity: a live Israeli. Each new phase in the negotiations required an additional leg of shuttle diplomacy. The entire negotiations have cost the German government millions of dollars.

The snags were numerous, but the major thorn on which the talks were constantly caught was Ron Arad. Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Moshe Ya'alon told The Jerusalem Post in October that Israel believes Hizbullah might posses information on the missing airman, but that the key to Arad is buried in Teheran.

It was Ya'alon who suggested that the deal be divided into two clear understandings. The first involving the personnel actually in the possession of Israel and Hizbullah, and the second dealing with information leading to Arad.

For years, however, it has been rumored in the intelligence community that Arad is dead. In a 1998 interview, Schmidtbauer himself said that, "in the first stages of my efforts, there were signs that Ron Arad was alive and held in Lebanon... but by the end of my mission at the end of the 1990s, the various signs showed Arad was no longer alive."

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