JERUSALEM (Aug. 26)
Relations between Israel and Hezbollah may be reaching a historic turning point: For one of the first times in the complicated relationship between Israel and the radical Shi’ite organization, it seems that Hezbollah has blinked first.
A few days ago, Hezbollah allowed a German mediator to visit kidnapped Israeli businessman Elhanan Tannenbaum, who is being held in Lebanon.
Despite its threats to kidnap Israeli soldiers to speed up negotiations for the release of Lebanese prisoners in Israel, Hezbollah gave in to the Israeli position that a precondition for negotiations was a sign that Tannenbaum was still alive.
In a speech three months ago, the secretary-general of Hezbollah, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, purposely was vague about Tannenbaum’s fate in an effort to keep Israel guessing — and to raise the value of a possible deal for information on the captured businessman.
Indeed, in the past, Nasrallah has demanded a high price — such as the release of thousands of Palestinian prisoners and 12 Lebanese held in Israel, in exchange for information on missing Israelis believed held in Lebanon.
Eventually, however, Hezbollah was forced to deliver the information first, allowing German mediator Ernest Uhrlau to visit Tannenbaum. Uhrlau reported that the prisoner was in fair condition.
The Shi’ite militant group was immediately rewarded.
On Monday, Israel released the bodies of two Hezbollah fighters killed in south Lebanon in the late 1990’s, turning them over to the Red Cross in Lebanon.
All of a sudden, a deal with Hezbollah seemed more possible than ever before.
Israel is demanding the return of Tannenbaum and three soldiers kidnapped along the border three years ago, who Israel believes are dead. In exchange, Israel is offering to release 12 Lebanese prisoners, including Shi’ite activist Mustafa Dirani and Sheik Abdul Karim Obeid, one of the leaders of Hezbollah.
This is a breakthrough, said reserve Brig. Gen. Rafi Noi, former head of Israel’s northern command.
According to Noi, it is significant that Hezbollah made the first move this week, seeming just as eager to strike a deal as Israel.
Three factors led to the apparent change in Hezbollah’s attitude.
First, there is growing internal pressure: Families of Lebanese prisoners held in Israel are losing patience over Hezbollah’s failure to reach an agreement for the release of their relatives. The Shi’ite group is facing growing criticism that it needlessly escalates the conflict along Israel’s border at a time when Lebanon finally is recovering economically from years of war.
Second, there is increasing international pressure on Hezbollah: The war in Iraq and heavy American pressure on Syria and Iran sent a clear signal to Hezbollah that it no longer enjoys the automatic support of its two state sponsors.
Third, there is concern that escalating tensions or even just maintaining the status quo with Israel could jeopardize Hezbollah’s status in Lebanon.
But both Israel and Hezbollah are dancing on a tightrope.
Two weeks ago, relations seemed to reach a dangerous point when Hezbollah fired an anti-aircraft missile across the border. The rocket killed an Israeli youth in the town of Shlomi and forced residents of the northern Israeli city of Kiryat Shmona into bomb shelters.
Thanks to tough Israeli warnings and American mediation, Hezbollah restrained itself from further action, and quiet has returned to Israel’s northern border.
At present, Hezbollah fighters are deployed all along Israel’s border with Lebanon, from Metulla in the east to Rosh Hanikra in the west. They man positions and fly their flags, often within view of Israeli soldiers on the other side of the border fence.
Hezbollah also is believed to have thousands of missiles deployed in southern Lebanon that could hit major Israeli population centers.
“There is a new situation and Hezbollah faces new dilemmas,” Middle East expert Ya’acov Havakuk said. “The organization now realizes that the situation is more complex than in the past and that it cannot beat Israel.”
In a recent interview with the Christian Science Monitor, Nasrallah said his group’s military wing did not have to remain a permanent fixture along the border. However, this could change only within the framework of a “comprehensive settlement” in the region, he said.
In some ways, it is easier for Israel to negotiate with Hezbollah than with the Palestinians. In contrast to the Palestinian arena, with its multiplicity of competing and overlapping groups, Hezbollah is a very structured organization, with political wings and social service branches in addition to the military branch.
Nasrallah is the group’s uncontested leader. He was elected to his post in 1992 after Abbas Mussawi was assassinated in an Israeli missile strike.
Friends and enemies alike — including Israel — consider Nasrallah a man who honors his word.
“I recall that at times we refrained from taking certain action against Hezbollah, because Nasrallah threatened that they would respond so and so, and we knew that he would stand by his word,” Noi said.
Nasrallah maintains that he does not receive orders from Iran and Syria, but he is well aware that without their support in money and arms, his organization would be far less powerful.
He also knows that the U.S. and Israel already are warning Iran and Syria. After the Shlomi incident, Israeli fighter jets buzzed the palace of Syrian President Bashar Assad as a warning against Syrian sponsorship of attacks from Lebanon into Israel.
The decision to allow the German mediator to visit Tannenbaum can be linked to a recent statement by Assad that he was willing to help with the Israeli prisoner issue. Nasrallah apparently received clear signals from Damascus that it was time to take a different position in negotiating with Israel.
Yet Nasrallah is always a hard bargainer, and the road toward a final exchange is a long and winding road.
Eyal Zisser, a professor of Middle East studies at Tel-Aviv University, predicted that Nasrallah will squeeze the maximum out of Israel until a deal is sealed.
And, of course, there’s always the possibility that Hezbollah could change its mind at the last minute.