The truce between Israel and Hezbollah appears to be consolidating into a stable standoff in southern Lebanon. A weekend of Western pledges of troops for a foreign force that would keep Hezbollah from Israel’s northern border was capped by serious indications that two Israeli soldiers whose July 12 abduction by the Lebanese terrorist group sparked the war may soon be released.
It offered some relief for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who has been scrambling to fend off widespread criticism in Israel of his handling of the 34-day Lebanon war.
Al-Ahram, a semi-official Egyptian daily, reported Sunday that Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev could go free within two or three weeks as part of a German-mediated deal between Israel and Hezbollah.
The newspaper’s claims were bolstered by Hezbollah’s leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, who confirmed that talks on a possible prisoner swap were under way.
“Contacts recently began for negotiations,” Nasrallah told Lebanon’s New TV. “The United Nations is interested.”
Jerusalem has publicly ruled out releasing Arab security prisoners in return for Goldwasser and Regev, or for Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier seized by Palestinian gunmen and dragged to Gaza June 25.
But Israeli media have speculated that Olmert eventually will relent, possibly by freeing just three Lebanese prisoners rather than the additional hundreds of jailed Palestinians also demanded by Hezbollah.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan is to visit Jerusalem later this week for talks with Olmert and other high-level Israeli officials. The fate of the Israeli hostages is on the agenda, as well as the Aug. 31 deadline set by the Security Council for Iran to curb its nuclear program.
Annan announced last Friday that France would lead a bolstered U.N. peacekeeper force for southern Lebanon, until Italy takes over next year. Under the U.N.-brokered cease-fire resolution, the force is to comprise 15,000 troops and be backed up by a similar number of Lebanese army personnel.
French President Jacques Chirac has suggested the foreign force would be fewer than originally envisaged, calling the 15,000 figure “excessive.” But while initial French estimates were that the final figure would be around half that, Ireland, another contributor of peacekeepers, said it could reach 9,000.
Annan has said the U.N. force would not be empowered to disarm Hezbollah. A compromise of sorts appears to be in the works whereby the Iranian- and Syrian-backed militia will remain armed, but won’t display its weapons in public.
“The U.N. force won’t face problems as long as it does not try to disarm Hezbollah,” Nasrallah said.
There is some solace in that for Israel, which put among its war goals ending the six-year-old status quo whereby Hezbollah gunmen kept a menacing presence on the border.
But the memory of 162 Israelis killed in the conflict, including dozens of soldiers who died in an 11th-hour sweep before the truce took hold, has stirred up debate in the Jewish state.
A weekend newspaper poll found that 63 percent of respondents want Olmert to resign. Bowing to public pressure, the prime minister has said he would consider appointing an independent state inquiry into the war, rather than the government-mandated probe initially pledged.
But Olmert’s decision to go to war after Hezbollah abducted Goldwasser and Regev and killed eight other soldiers received a backhanded compliment from Nasrallah, who admitted that his group never envisioned such a strong Israeli response.
“If I had known that the operation to capture the soldiers would lead to this result, we would not have carried it out,” he said.
The Olmert government has argued that Israel’s offensive helped its military deterrence in the face of Arab foes and Iran. Perhaps in a tacit admission of this, Nasrallah played down speculation that a new round of fighting lay ahead.
“Their displaced people are going back and they have started to rebuild the North,” he said, referring to Israel. “Someone who acts like that does not seem to be going to war. We are not heading to a second round.”