The machinery is running for the Israel-Hizballah prisoner swap.
Barring hitches, debkafile‘s intelligence sources report it is due to take place on a date between Wednesday October 22 and Friday October 24, depending on when the sky-gazing senior imams sight the next crescent moon and proclaim the start of the holy Muslim feast month of Ramadhan.
The Israeli government has agreed to this schedule, a bonus for Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah that enables him to advertise himself as the only Muslim leader – not Saddam Hussein or even Osama bin Laden or Yasser Arafat – capable of bringing about the release of “Islamic fighters”.
However, in the last two days, his demands for restoring Elhanan Tanenboim and the bodies of the three soldiers the Hizballah kidnapped in October 2000: Benny Avraham, Adi Avitan and Omar Suweid, are spiraling out of sight. Relishing his new status, the Hizballah leader sat in state over the weekend, receiving delegates of the Palestinian Hamas and Jihad Islami terrorist groups with requests to put their imprisoned members on the negotiating table. From obedient minion of Damascus and Tehran, Nasrallah was in the privileged position of bestowing favors on allied terrorist groups – according to the potential usefulness of the recipient.
He may be overplaying his hand.
Tuesday, September 30, the Israeli cabinet put its foot down by taking the item off its agenda. The number of prisoners Israel would release had not been determined, said a spokesman in Jerusalem, and would certainly not include terrorist-murderers, Jordanians or Israeli Arabs.
All sides now await a decision by Iran’s spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, minister of intelligence Hojatoleslam Akli Younesi and senior justice Mahmoud Hashemi Shah-Roudi regarding the release of information on the fate of the Israeli navigator Ron Arad who fell captive in Lebanon 17 years ago.
Expectations are low. Tehran never parted with a word on what befell two US colonels, William R. Higgins and William Buckley, who were kidnapped in Lebanon in the eighties at their behest and tortured before they were put to death. The Iranians are even less likely to be forthcoming on the Israeli navigator.
Against all odds, Ron Arad’s family is fighting a courageous and spirited battle to force the Israeli government to make any prisoner handover to the Hizballah conditional on receipt of news about the missing Israeli navigator. They have petitioned the Tel Aviv district court to place a $1 million lien on the “rights and properties” of a key Lebanese captive, Mustafa Dirani, to prevent his release and cover damages for the abuse he inflicted on Ron Arad before selling him to the Iranians. By filing a second petition with the Supreme Court in Jerusalem, they have gained partial access to a secret report that concluded there is no proof of the missing navigator’s death; therefore he must be presumed alive.
But it is a losing battle, because the information they want is not in the hands of the Hizballah but in Tehran. It will be made available only if a top Iranian decision-maker calculates that its release will benefit Tehran’s interests. In particular, Tehran would like to disentangle its relations with Washington or Berlin without giving up its nuclear program. The Iranians might also be tempted into giving the German government information about the Israeli navigator to set off a four-way prisoner exchange between Germany, Iran, Israel and Hizballah. They would then be able to demand that the Schroeder government hand over Iranian prisoners held on charges of terrorist action or assassination on behalf of Iranian intelligence.
In return Israeli would be required to cut loose an expanded number of Palestinian prisoners or detainees. However, if Tehran stays out of the transaction, Israel will feel less obliged to be forthcoming on Palestinian prisoners.
In any case, some exchange will go forward. The Arads therefore have little hope of winning their just, heartbreaking fight. Ron’s brother, Hen, who is spearheading the battle, will have to accept that it is too late in the day to bear results. The missing Israeli may still have been alive in the early 1990s. By now, given the nature of his captors, the chances are dim. The dated confidential report to which the Arads have been granted partial access establishes no more than non-proof of his death. At some point, the Sharon government will tell the court that there is nothing more to be done and present them with the solomonic decision between holding out for Ron Arad – however hopeless the prospects – or winning freedom for an Israeli known to be alive, Elhanan Tanenboim, and recovering the abducted soldiers to grant their grieving families the solace of a ceremonial burial.
If anyone in Lebanon knows what befell Ron Arad, it is not Nasrallah – who was never au fait with his disposition – but the wanted master terrorist-abductor Imad Mughniyeh. The only realistic path remaining to the Arads is an appeal through official channels to the White House in Washington with a proposal of concerted action against the man notorious for orchestrating the deadly wave of mass terror and abductions of westerners in the Beirut of the 1980s, who subsequently served Tehran and al Qaeda as their terrorist operational ace.
It was Mughniyeh who abducted the late Colonels Higgins and Buckley and it was he who secretly moved Arad from the Lebanese Beqaa Valley to Damascus for interrogation by Syrian and Russian agents and after that most probably to Tehran. His is the most likely hand to have kidnapped the three Israeli soldiers three years ago. It was up to Mughniyeh to decide whether Nasrallah would be given the locations of Tanenboim and the three soldiers. He therefore held the key to the current prisoner exchange.
However, in recent months, the veteran master terrorist senses Washington’s noose closing around his neck. He lives in Lebanon at the mercy of the Syrians and the Hizballah because he has nowhere left to go. Therefore, the big question hanging over the current trade is not how many Palestinian prisoners Nasrallah will break free, but what deal he struck with Mughniyeh in lieu of the information he received on Tanenboim and the soldiers.
After the prisoner swap goes through – if it does – Mughniyeh will be left with a single trump – word of Ron Arad. That is the card the navigator’s family must seek to uncover and it won’t be achieved by litigation in Israeli courts over Mustafa Dirani.
The machinery is running for the Israel-Hizballah prisoner swap.