TEL AVIV (Jan. 25)
Free at last, but at what price?
That was the question on some Israelis’ minds over the weekend after a German mediator helped seal the deal on a long-awaited prisoner swap between Israel and Hezbollah, the Lebanese militia group.
Barring last-minute delays, an Israeli businessman and the bodies of three Israeli soldiers held by Hezbollah since October 2000 were scheduled to arrive in Tel Aviv on Thursday. In return, Israel was slated to release 435 Arab security prisoners.
Despite the asymmetry of the exchange and its inconsistency with Israel’s general principle of refusing to negotiate with terrorists, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was upbeat about it.
“In my opinion, we made the proper, ethical and responsible decision,” he told his Cabinet on Sunday.
But set against Israel’s ongoing conflict with Hezbollah, the deal drew warnings from security experts that it would increase the risk that Israelis would be kidnapped for ransom.
Last week, Hezbollah — which the U.S. and Israel classify as a terrorist group — killed a bulldozer driver with the Israeli army who was clearing mines along the border.
“It can be assumed that the liberation bash Hezbollah is planning will send the signal to terrorists of all stripes that this is a tactic that pays,” terrorism analyst Boaz Ganor wrote in Israel’s daily Ma’ariv.
There is added controversy around the fact that the only live Israeli to be repatriated as a result of the deal, Elhanan Tannenbaum, was nabbed by Hezbollah during an alleged illicit business trip to the Persian Gulf.
While a military honor guard will await the arrival of the three dead soldiers — Benny Avraham, Adi Avitan and Omar Souad — at Ben-Gurion Airport on Thursday, Tannenbaum can expect a far more modest reception. He may even be prosecuted for violating Israeli law by traveling illegally to hostile Arab states.
Notably absent from the release roster is Ron Arad, the Israel Air Force navigator who went missing after bailing out from his failing Phantom jet over Lebanon in 1986.
As part of the deal, Israel agreed to free both Hezbollah leader Sheik Abdul Karim Obeid and Shi’ite leader Mustafa Dirani, both Lebanese it hoped to trade for Arad.
But Jerusalem claimed its own victory in refusing to release Samir Kuntar, a Lebanese jailed for life for killing three Israelis in a 1979 terrorist attack. Hezbollah chief Sheik Hassan Nasrallah last year had threatened to make his demand for Kuntar’s release a deal-breaker.
According to Israeli security sources, Hezbollah has been given a grace period to provide information on Arad, perhaps from Iran. In exchange, Israel would retry Kuntar with a view to commuting his sentence to time already served.
Thursday’s deal has its precedents. In the early 1980s, Israel released more than 5,700 security prisoners in exchange for eight Israeli soldiers captured in Lebanon.
In 1998, it released 60 Lebanese security prisoners in exchange for the remains of an Israeli commando killed in action.
“We may deal asymmetrically, but no one can deny the premium Israel puts on human life,” a senior political source in Jerusalem said.