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Prisoner Swap Renews Focus on Israeli-Hezbollah Tensions

July 16, 2008 at 6:20 PM EDT
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In a deal brokered by the U.N., Hezbollah handed over two coffins containing the remains of Israeli soldiers abducted two years ago, in exchange for the release of five Lebanese prisoners. Analysts discuss the deal, and the debate surrounding it.

KWAME HOLMAN: The black coffins confirmed what Israelis had feared: the two Israeli soldiers captured by Hezbollah two years ago were dead.

Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser, two university students on reserve duty, were seized while on patrol in July 2006. Their capture triggered a 34-day war between Israel and Hezbollah militants that came to an inconclusive end and left nearly 1,200 people dead in Lebanon and nearly 160 in Israel.

The swap, which took place near a border crossing in the northern Israeli town of Rosh HaNikra, was mediated by a U.N.-appointed German official and facilitated by the International Committee of the Red Cross.

In exchange, Israel handed to Lebanon five Lebanese militants, all alive.

The most notorious prisoner is Samir Kantar, convicted in 1979 for murders still vivid in Israeli memory, the killing of an Israeli policeman; then, the shooting a young civilian, Danny Haran; and smashing the skull of his 4-year-old daughter. A second daughter was smothered accidentally by Haran’s wife during the kidnapping.

Today, Israel also returned to Lebanon the bodies of 199 Arabs killed while infiltrating Israel in recent years. Hezbollah supporters poured onto the streets of Lebanon’s towns, celebrating their release. And joining the festivities, in a rare public appearance, was Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah.

Others in Lebanon hailed the release as a victory.

ALI BAZZI, Member of Parliament, Lebanon (through translator): Today is a national and historic day, with renewed victory for the Lebanese determination and for the victory of the martyrs, prisoners, and resistors who are victorious over the tools of the Israeli terrorists.

AHMED HAMED, Palestinian Refugee (through translator): I am as old as the Palestinian revolution and have never seen an event like this. I feel proud of this great victory.

KWAME HOLMAN: The Israeli cabinet overwhelmingly approved the swap yesterday in a 22-3 vote.

SHIMON PERES, President, Israel: It’s not a happy choice. I mean, on one hand, we have the most terrible murderer; on the other hand, we have our commitment to our own boys, who were sent to fight for their country in danger. And it is our moral duty and our heartfelt wish to see them come back.

KWAME HOLMAN: The three ministers who opposed the deal argued the swap would make it more difficult for Israel to win the release of a third Israeli soldier, Corporal Gilad Shalit. He was captured by Hamas militants near Gaza two years ago and is believed to be alive.

EYAL REGEV, Brother of Eldad Regev (through translator): This deal involves a very painful price. On the other hand, we must be proud of the decision made by the state of Israel to bring back Eldad and Ehud. It was the moral obligation of the state of Israel.

KWAME HOLMAN: The fate of another high-profile Israeli prisoner, flyer Ron Arad, remains unknown after decades of captivity. But in several exchanges, Israel has handed over Arab militants in return for Israeli prisoners, most recently in 2004.

An important, necessary step

Rami Khouri
American University of Beirut
This is the fifth or the sixth prisoner exchange between Israel and Hezbollah, so it's not an unprecedented move. It's also maybe the last prisoner exchange. There's no more prisoners being held.

MARGARET WARNER: For more on today's exchange, we turn to Daniel Levy, senior fellow and director of the Middle East programs at both the New America Foundation and the Century Foundation. A former Israeli peace negotiator, he holds dual Israeli and British citizenship.

And Rami Khouri, director of the Fares Institute at the American University of Beirut and editor-at-large of Lebanon's Daily Star newspaper. Of Palestinian descent, he holds dual Jordanian and U.S. citizenship.

Very complicated, gentlemen, but welcome to you both.

As we saw, this event, this exchange was being celebrated in Lebanon and among Hezbollah as a great victory for them. And the mood, I think it's fair to say, on the Israeli side was quite somber.

Are both sides, Daniel Levy, essentially reading it right, that this is a victory for Hezbollah?

DANIEL LEVY, New America Foundation: Well, I think the visuals were obviously very difficult for Israelis today. But I think in the words of the president and the brother of one of the soldiers returned today, that it was also Israel's moral obligation.

So I think it's too simplistic just to see this as weakness and bad for Israel. People have to understand it's a small country. We have a draft. Everyone serves.

And for Israelis, the knowledge that the country will do whatever it can to return soldiers in whatever condition, it also has a degree of strength. It's also a part of a communal social solidarity. The Israelis are walking around today probably feeling painful, feeling sad, but also feeling that this was necessary to do.

MARGARET WARNER: And how do you see it, in terms of each side in this and what it really means for them?

RAMI KHOURI, American University of Beirut: I think you have to see this in a wider context. This is the fifth or the sixth prisoner exchange between Israel and Hezbollah, so it's not an unprecedented move. It's also maybe the last prisoner exchange. There's no more prisoners being held.

This is an important step in this process. But at the same time, both Israel and Hezbollah have shown impressive military might, but both of them have also started to learn the limits of their military power.

And it's an ironic situation, where Hezbollah is very strong and has a lot of support. Not everybody in Lebanon supports it, but a lot of people are supporting it now, but it's also open to more criticism in Lebanon. It's involved in a political battle within the country.

And there are regional circumstances -- Israeli-Syrian talks, Iranian-Western issues -- that possibly might change the whole regional situation for Hezbollah, so it's a moment of change on a longer timescale.

Hezbollah's position in Lebanon

Daniel Levy
New America Foundation
One of the last remaining arguments for Hezbollah to use as to why it should maintain a militia and a resistance has been removed.

MARGARET WARNER: But if what we have here is a state, Israel, negotiating, dealing with, and essentially giving the better end of this exchange, albeit with a caveat you point out, to this non-state, partial -- they're part of the government in Lebanon, but they're really an outside group -- what does this say about, two years after the war that they went to fight with one another, about Hezbollah's position?

DANIEL LEVY: Well, I think, two years ago and today, there is a recognition, that there is a reality in Lebanon that Hezbollah is a significant central actor. Today, as you said, Hezbollah is back in a government that's a national unity government, a power-sharing arrangement in Lebanon.

But, as Rami says, what the exchange means is that one of the last remaining arguments for Hezbollah to use as to why it should maintain a militia and a resistance has been removed. Some in Israel actually say he was bother than he was worth, Kontar. Let's get this pretext out of the way.

Hezbollah can now point to the Shebaa Farms, a small area under dispute, and that's about it. And this...

MARGARET WARNER: In terms of what their point of conflict is with Israel?

DANIEL LEVY: Why they should be able to maintain a militia and not totally politicize themselves. And I think the more you force that question, the more they actually have to confront what their real identity is. So, in a way, that's a positive.

RAMI KHOURI: I think the reality of Hezbollah is that it has become the most powerful group in Lebanon. It is more powerful than the state, in many situations. It forced the government to accept its terms for a national unity government.

MARGARET WARNER: And it essentially now has a veto in the cabinet there.

RAMI KHOURI: It has a veto, but so do the other members of the cabinet, so it's not as if it runs the government. But it can prevent some big strategic issues from being moved in a certain direction, but so can the other half of the government.

And the reality, though, is that Hezbollah is very strong, but it has also elicited in recent years more open opposition and challenge in Lebanon for various reasons. One of which was the war in 2006; the other was the fighting in May in Beirut and other parts of the country.

So it's in a paradoxical situation, where it's very powerful, but it's also much more constrained. The presence of the Lebanese army in the south, the expanded UNIFIL United Nations force, gives it less maneuverability in the south, but political pressures on it inside Lebanon and regionally are constraining its political room. So it's learning to adjust to this new situation.

Approaching a new equilibrium?

Rami Khouri
American University of Beirut
It's better for Hezbollah and Israel to exchange prisoners than to exchange rockets and missiles.

MARGARET WARNER: But so how does today's swap fit in with the broader strategic objectives that both Israel and Hezbollah have right now? Take Israel. I mean, this isn't the only front on which they're negotiating with adversaries. They're also negotiating with Hamas indirectly to get back Shalit and with Syria now there are talks.

DANIEL LEVY: Well, three things have happened in the last few weeks, which in the Lebanese-Syrian-Israeli context all suggest that we might be moving towards a new equilibrium.

There was the exchange today, but before that you had this weekend in Paris, Syria and Lebanon agreeing to exchange ambassadors. You have the renewal of Turkish-mediated Israeli proximity talks with Syria. And you have the power-sharing arrangement in Lebanon, all suggesting that one is moving towards a new arrangement in that triangle.

For Israel, by the way, important to have an address in Lebanon, so if Hezbollah is part of the government, then the government is also responsible for what happens.

MARGARET WARNER: But is this a sign of weakness on Israel's part or strength, pragmatism and strength?

DANIEL LEVY: Well, I think it's a sign of realism. It's a sign of dealing with the Middle East as it is, rather than as we'd like it to be. That's what applies applied to the Hamas cease-fire.

There was no great military option in Gaza. Israel has pursued with Egyptian mediation a cease-fire. No one is thrilled about it or running around celebrating, but it's providing more security to the neighborhoods that surround Gaza.

Israel will negotiate for the release, perhaps with added urgency now, of Corporal Shalit, who's being held in Gaza by Hamas. It's realism.

MARGARET WARNER: And is that what you're saying, essentially, on Hezbollah's part, too, that there's a new realism on its part?

RAMI KHOURI: Well, I think that -- yes.

MARGARET WARNER: ... work more actively in the political context and less in the military?

RAMI KHOURI: They have been working at both levels for many years. They're a resistance movement. They're a Shiite empowerment group. They're an Islamist group. They're a social service delivery system. They're...

MARGARET WARNER: And an Iranian client.

RAMI KHOURI: And an Iranian strategic ally. I don't know if they're a client or not, but they're certainly a strategic ally and they're close to Syria. They oppose American policies in the region at some levels. They support the Palestinians.

They do a lot of things at the same time, which is why they have credibility, but they also scare a lot of people. Many Lebanese question, are they puppets of Iran? What are they?

But the reality is -- I think if you look at it from this regional, strategic perspective, it's very interesting. Israel in the last several months has done three things that the United States has been telling it not to do: negotiate with Syria; negotiate with Hamas; negotiate with Hezbollah.

And I think the changing strategic situation in the Middle East is one which is symbolized by the exchange today, that Israel had to do diplomatically what it could not do militarily, which is get its soldiers back.

Hezbollah achieved diplomatically what it said it would always achieve through diplomatic and military force, which is get its prisoners back.

It's better for Hezbollah and Israel to exchange prisoners than to exchange rockets and missiles. And I think this is one of the important things that you're seeing at a regional level.

A regional context

Daniel Levy
New America Foundation
One can [...] also imagine that there's a number of Lebanese sitting at home today not that happy and saying, "Was it all worth it two years ago to get this guy out?" It's not so simple.

MARGARET WARNER: And, briefly, do you think this means they will exchange fewer rockets and missiles? They haven't for two years, but it reduces that option.

DANIEL LEVY: Well, it removes -- it reduces that. It removes another pretext. There is the outstanding issue of Mughniyah, who Hezbollah claims that Israel was behind that assassination.

But Hezbollah now knows that Israel will -- it's feeling bitter about today and will respond heavily to anything. You can also see this in an Iranian context. Israelis removing Iranian leverage. Hezbollah is more locked into a Lebanese domestic relationship now, cease-fire with Hamas, talking to Syria.

So one can also see it in that context and also imagine that there's a number of Lebanese sitting at home today not that happy and saying, "Was it all worth it two years ago to get this guy out?" It's not so simple.

RAMI KHOURI: And just one last point. You have the third-highest American State Department official going to a meeting with the Iranians. This is extremely important, so the whole regional context needs to be seen in that context.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, thank you for helping us see it that way. Rami Khouri and Daniel Levy, thank you.

RAMI KHOURI: Thank you.

DANIEL LEVY: Thank you.