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Analysis

BICOM Analysis: Israel’s cabinet approves prisoner swap deal with Hezbollah

On Sunday, the Israeli cabinet voted to approve a proposed prisoner swap deal with Hezbollah.  According to the deal, four Hezbollah members captured during the 2006 war, along with Samir Kuntar, a Lebanese terrorist serving four life sentences for his participation in a murderous terrorist attack in 1979, will be released. In exchange, the bodies of Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser, two IDF soldiers who were killed during a Hezbollah raid into Israel on 12 July 2006, will be returned after almost two years. This brief will examine the details of the deal, the process of its approval, and its possible consequences.

 

The main points of the deal

Shortly after the Cabinet voted on the prisoner exchange deal, the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office released a statement containing its main points.

Prisoner exchange: Israel will release Samir Kuntar and four Lebanese fighters captured in 2006, while Hezbollah will release the two IDF soldiers. This is obviously the central aspect of the agreement but its importance lies in Kuntar’s release after three decades in which he has been imprisoned in Israel.  

Kuntar was captured after carrying out a particularly heinous terror attack near the town of Nahariya on behalf of the Palestine Liberation Front terror organisation[i] in 1979. In the course of the attack, Kuntar killed an Israeli man, Danny Haran, in front of his four-year-old daughter Einat, and then beat the four year old girl to death. Israel has long refused to consider Kuntar’s release, and his fate has been turned into a cause celebre by Hezbollah. At the same time, the hideous nature of the attack excluded Kuntar from previous prisoner exchange deals between Israel and Hezbollah.

It is worth noting that Smadar Haran, the widow of Danny Haran and the mother of Einat, issued a statement in the days leading up to the cabinet vote on the deal, in which she said that she did not consider Kuntar to be her ‘personal prisoner’, and that the government should make its decisions based on the interests of the broader public.

Exchange of intelligence and information.In the initial stage of the deal, Hezbollah will provide a report detailing its efforts to obtain further information on the fate of Ron Arad, an Israeli air force navigator whose plane was shot down in 1986. Simultaneously, Israel will present the information it holds regarding the fate of four Iranian diplomats who have been missing in Lebanon since the early 1980s.

On the Israeli side, obtaining information regarding the fate of Arad is crucial. Israel has insisted Kuntar’s incarceration will provide it with an important ‘bargaining chip’ to discover more information about the fate and whereabouts of the MIA Israeli navigator. The Arad family has been placing substantial pressure on Israeli decision makers not to release Kuntar until concrete information is provided and Hezbollah’s report is seen as a way of consolidating these demands with the need to push ahead the release of Regev and Goldwasser.

Hezbollah has also demanded that information regarding four Iranian diplomats that have been missing since the early 1980s. While proving once again Hezbollah’s alliance with its Iranian supporters, it has been reported that Israel holds little information regarding the fate of the diplomats. According to media reports, the Iranian diplomats were last seen at a checkpoint manned by Lebanese-Christian militiamen, where they were arrested and apparently executed shortly after. Lebanese sources claim that the bodies of the Iranians were then buried at a nearby construction site, which would explain why their bodies have not been found to date.

The return the bodies of dozens of infiltrators and terrorists. Israel will return the bodies of Lebanese killed during the war and during terror attempts in Israel to Lebanon. This will also include eight Hezbollah members.

The release of Palestinian prisoners. The wording of the Israeli cabinet’s resolution indicates that the numbers and identities of the Palestinian prisoners to be released will be determined by Israel.[ii]

Although government officials have been downplaying the significance of this aspect of the agreement, it has raised quite substantial opposition from Israeli security officials fearing Hezbollah may be perceived as the “liberator” of Palestinians imprisoned in Israel, which would further weaken the Palestinian leadership under PA President Mahmoud Abbas. It is hard to overestimate how damaging Hezbollah’s actions are to the political stability in the Palestinian Authority and to the impact that is has on the legitimacy of the current PA leadership.

The process of the deal’s approval

The deal is the result of two years of determined mediation led by the German government in the person of Gerhard Conrad. For the most of the negotiation period, the sides were able to preserve secrecy and to conduct the talks without the burden of publicity. Now that it has been approved by the cabinet, it is considered likely that it will be implemented within days. The latest Israeli media reports suggest that the deal will be carried out within the next ten days, so as to be concluded prior to the second anniversary of the 2006 War.[iii]

Although the deal was approved with an overwhelming majority in the cabinet, with 22 in favour and three against,[iv] it did not pass without dissenting voices. Some Israeli officials had voiced their opposition on the ground that paying the heavy price of Kuntar’s release, in return for reportedly dead bodies, would represent a victory for Israel’s enemies and perhaps encourage further abductions. On this basis, Mossad Head Meir Dagan and Shin Bet head Yuval Diskin spoke to cabinet members prior to the vote, and urge them to reject the deal.

IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi, however, also addressed ministers prior to the vote, and encouraged them to support the deal. Ashkenazi stressed that the IDF’s longstanding commitment to bring all soldiers home was a core part of the IDF ethos, and that living up to this was part of Israel’s national security.

Reiterating Ashkenazi’s point, several ministers who have served in leading security positions stressed the centrality of the country’s commitment to its servicemen and women. This point was made by Defence Minister Ehud Barak, former Shin Bet chief and Navy commander Admiral Ami Ayalon and former Shin Bet chief Avi Dichter. Absorption Minister Yacov Edri (Kadima) noted that for him, the support offered by the IDF chief of staff was the point which convinced him to vote in favour. Binyamin Ben-Eliezer MK (Israeli Labour), himself a retired IDF Major-General, said that he respected the position taken by the Mossad and Shin Bet heads, which was correct from a strictly security point of view. However, the cabinet were required to see things from a broader perspective, which included the issue of the distress of the families.[v]

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, in remarks to the cabinet prior to the vote, also encouraged support for the proposed deal, adding that his decision was reached after long deliberation. Speaking to reporters the day after the vote, PM Olmert noted that supporting the decision was difficult for him, but that he did so in order to remove the possibility of another Ron Arad affair developing, leaving the families to suffer in uncertainty for possibly years to come.   

Analysts have noted that the ‘cost’ of the deal for Israel, while steep, is less than what Hezbollah had been hoping for at earlier stages of the negotiations, when a long list of Palestinian prisoners had also featured in the organisation’s demands. In recommending support for the deal, PM Olmert noted that rejecting it could mean a lengthy delay and a more painful eventual price-tag.

Responses  

Discussing the reasons for their decision to support the deal, some ministers correctly noted that the deal did not establish a precedent for Israel’s exchanging live prisoners in return for the bodies of IDF soldiers. Israel has in the past released 45 enemy prisoners in order to receive the bodies of Yossi Fink and Rahamim Alshayach in 1996, and the release of a further 60 prisoners in exchange for the body of fallen IDF soldier Itamar Ilya.

Despite the overwhelming majority that supported the deal, the reports from the cabinet’s meeting were sombre. It was clear that the decision was made after long considerations and with an understanding that this is a painful choice, but one which would have moral and ethical implications in addition to security and defence consequences. Following the decision, PM Olmert met with members of the families of Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser. He told them that the decision represented a “very important moment for the State of Israel.” Miki Goldwasser, mother of Ehud, said that the support given the families by the media and the larger public was a source of pride.

Hezbollah, for its part, greeted the news of the deal with jubilation.[vi] The movement’s stated goal for launching the series of attempted kidnappings of IDF soldiers which culminated in the 15 July attack was to free Kuntar and other prisoners. The movement had been the subject of very harsh criticism among parts of the Lebanese public since the violent clashes of May this year, when it turned its weapons against the Lebanese government. As such, Hezbollah was badly in need of an achievement to justify its determination to retain its independent military infrastructure.

Hizballah’s al-Manar television channel announced that the deal confirmed that the “word of the resistance is the most faithful, strongest and supreme.”

Conclusion: possible consequences

The decision to agree to the deal will undoubtedly be interpreted by Hezbollah and its regional supporters as confirming what they regard as their victory in the 2006 war. Hezbollah will likely stress its success in releasing Kuntar after three decades and the failure of Israel to realise its stated goals when launching the operation to release the kidnapped soldiers and disarm the Islamic organisation.

Both Mossad Head Meir Dagan and Shin Bet Head Yuval Diskin, in encouraging ministers to reject the deal, stated that acceding to it was likely to lead to further abductions and to the more  general strengthening of radical forces. Whether this prediction is proven correct, or whether Hizballah will now focus its attentions inward will become apparent in the months to come.  

Hezbollah and Hamas strategists are likely to see the decision as confirming their view that Israel may be forced to yield to pressure – once it realises that its initial attempts to assert itself have failed. Decision makers in Jerusalem, meanwhile, may consider that with no Lebanese prisoners now remaining in Israeli incarceration, there is less likelihood of further kidnap attempts. The government also considered that despite the price paid in the deal, the deal represented the most humane solution for the families of the two kidnapped soldiers. The government considers that Israel’s concern for its soldiers represents true national strength, despite the celebrations of the enemy.

 


[i] The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) was founded at the end of the 1950s by Ahmad Jibril and was responsible for numerous attacks against Israel and Jews around the world in addition to the attack of 1979. The PFLP hijacked the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro in 1985, and in 1990 attempted a mass terror attack in an Israeli beach which was thwarted by Israeli military forces.

[ii] “Main points of the agreement on the framework of the release of Israel’s missing and captive soldiers in Lebanon,”  Israel Government Press Office, June 29, 2008

[iii] Herb Keinon, “Soldiers set to be returned in 10 days,” Jerusalem Post, June 29, 2008.  http://www.jpost.com

[iv] Barak Ravid, “Bar-On: If we cede Kuntar, Barghouti will be next,” Haaretz, June 30, 2008.  http://www.haaretz.com

[v] Ben-Eliezer interviewed on IDF Radio, 30 June. 

[vi] Yoav Stern, “Festive welcome awaits prisoners in Lebanese towns,” Haaretz, June 30, 2008.  http://www.haaretz.com


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