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Copyright 2004 Jerusalem Post
January 27

HEADLINE: Analysis: Hizbullah in distress


Gloating Hizbullah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah will likely chalk up more headlines and anger more Israelis, particularly the families of the POWs and MIAs, before the week is through. But the demagogic leader of the Iran-backed, Syria-supported Lebanese terrorist group is actually in distress without room for maneuver.

Ironically, by going ahead with the prisoner exchange, Hizbullah is disarming itself of its main raison d' tre, further diminishing its legitimacy to remain Lebanon's sole terrorist organization.

"Just carrying out the deal is a great concession for Nasrallah. He climbed down a lot of trees on the way to this arrangement," said Prof. Eyal Zisser of Tel Aviv University's Dayan Center.

Nasrallah originally demanded the 1,500 Palestinians which they chose be freed. The agreed upon deal calls for 400 of Israel's choice. He also conceded on demands to release terrorists with blood on their hands, such as infiltrator Samir Kuntar who killed four Israelis in a 1979 raid on Nahariya.

Hizbullah collapsed in the talks because it is under pressure. The pressure is coming from inside Lebanon where more and more voices question Hizbullah's reasons for existence and blame it for bringing misfortune to Lebanon's stunted development.

"In light of this, it was important for Nasrallah to close the deal, present its prizes, and to strengthen Hizbullah's position inside Lebanon," Zisser said, adding that it would be fleeting.

"While the prisoner deal will be a feather in his cap, in the end Hizbullah has a problem," he said. "It actually pulls the rug out from under them and the reason for the organization's existence. Until now, he could say he exists because of the Lebanese prisoners. What is Nasrallah going to say now to those who say the time has come to put an end to it all?"

Zisser said that there is a rising number of Lebanese who are questioning Hizbullah's necessity. Newspaper editorials are saying that there are other, more important matters than the Shaba farms, like the economy.

Furthermore, the flowering of southern Lebanon has also restrained Hizbullah from heating up the border, where even the slightest action draws the IDF's wrath.

Officers said that last week's retaliatory air raid for the deadly anti-tank missile attack on a bulldozer wiped out two bases and caused casualties. The group did not risk further Israeli retaliation since that would destroy their accomplishments in the south. But, one cautioned, "don't eulogize Hizbullah yet."

Officers said that Iran and Syria are not yet ready to see the demise of their proxy for striking at Israel. They also predicted Hizbullah pushing its jihadist philosophy in the Palestinian front, where it has already made inroads in funding and directing terrorist attacks.

There is great optimism in the defense establishment that if there is a chance to get information on Arad, this formula will get it. But interpreting the prisoner deal also indicates that the defense establishment believes that missing aviator Ron Arad is, indeed, dead. This is contrary to its official position.

Israel has long held Iran responsible for Arad, ever since Republican Guards snatched him from Mustafa Dirani in 1988, two years after the navigator's plane was shot down.

Time is actually working against Iran since it is finding it increasingly difficult to admit they were holding Arad after the years of denial.

Over time, Arad is becoming more of a burden than an asset. With the deal, Israel is not only giving the Iranians a tree to climb down from, but is showing them how to do it.

It allows for Nasrallah to come up with solid proof of Arad's fate. A scenario could be scripted in which Arad's body could be found buried, thus relieving the Iranians of the blame. But if he surfaces alive, then he could tell all, something the Iranians would not want.

The defense establishment considered making information on Arad a condition for the deal, but it was decided this formula had a better chance of success. The word in Tel Aviv is that they are not sure Nasrallah genuinely knows what happened to Arad and needs Iranian help in the matter.

Nasrallah actually took a risk in agreeing to link Kuntar's release with solid information on the fate of Ron Arad. If he doesn't win Kuntar's freedom, then he will find himself humiliated as a failure.

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