Prisoner Swap Still up in the Air: Key in Tehran

The original date of publication for prisoner swap between the Hizballah and Israel was Friday, January 30, after it had begun – or even the next day, post factum, according to debkafile‘s Middle East sources. However, Israeli’s POW negotiator Brig. (ret) Ilan Biran warned the German mediator, Ernest Uhrlau, that once the deal was in the bag it could not be kept dark that long. In Israel, unlike Lebanon, prime minister Ariel Sharon is required to bring important decisions before his coalition government, a sure recipe for leaks to the media. Uhrlau passed the warning on to the Hizballah secretary general Hassan Nasrallah, who on the spot agreed to bring publication forward by six days to Saturday night, January 24.
All three parties to the deal, German, Israeli and Hizballah, also agreed keep the complete seven-page text of the agreement secret, allowing only a half a dozen officials in all three establishments to view the full version. Therefore, none of the cabinet members, with the exception of Sharon and defense minister Shaul Mofaz, was privy to all its provisions when they confirmed the accord; they had to make do with voting on the explanatory note.
Haste led to the deal starting out on the wrong foot, senior official sources in Berlin and Jerusalem told debkafile. Monday, January 26, the Israeli media reported prematurely that the authorities were exhuming 59 bodies of terrorists in a special Galilee cemetery prior to their transfer to Lebanon as part of the transaction. This put the cart before the horse. The full list of 400 Palestinians to be freed was not yet in Nasrallah’s hands or due for delivery before Monday afternoon or Tuesday morning. He therefore won extra time to veto names or even torpedo the deal before he laid out his own cards.
In a televised interview Sunday, January 29, the Hizballah leader said: “Only when the exchange takes place, will (the families) find out who is dead and who is alive.”
Since he knows more about the terms of the swap than most members of the Israeli cabinet,
he also has the advantage of claiming unopposed that he worsted Israel.
For example, contrary to the government’s claim that no terrorists “with blood on their hands” were freed, the list of prisoner does in fact include Anwar Yassin, who took part in one of the bloodiest terror attacks ever ordered by Yasser Arafat – the 1978 attack on an Egged bus on the coastal highway, which prompted Operation Litani, the punitive invasion of South Lebanon where Arafat was based at the time. The Hizballah leader may well use this as a precedent for demanding the release of additional Palestinian terrorists of this ilk.
He already made it clear in the television interview that Part Two of the exchange will not consist merely of the handover of the Lebanese Druse, the Nahariya killer Samir Kuntar, as agreed in return for information on the missing Israeli navigator Ron Arad. The price will go up. He is quoted in Jerusalem as saying: leaving one Druse in Israeli hands does not mean that we can leave all the Druse prisoners captured on Golan Heights in Israeli jails. He was referring to the score or more Golan Druses, Israeli citizens, caught spying, carrying out surveillance of targets for terrorist attacks, the smuggling of arms, explosives, funds and agents, and outright terrorist attacks – on behalf of the Hizballah and Syrian military intelligence. Nasrallah appears to be preparing to force Israeli to turn over its own citizens convicted of terrorist activity in a prisoner exchange with the enemy. The first such deal would give any anti-Israel terrorist organization the huge advantage of being able to give an Israeli citizen recruited for terrorist operations a guarantee of freedom in future prisoner swaps. The loss of Israel’s deterrent capability against terrorists would be inestimable.
The twisty Nasrallah can therefore spread more than one pitfall at Israel’s feet before the actual exchange takes place on Thursday. If he nonetheless lets it go through without any more tricks or maneuvers it means he has been told to do so by his masters in Tehran.
All the parties engaged in the transaction know where the decisions are made. Part Two of the deal – fresh information on the fate Ron Arad in return for the release of Samir Kuntar from his life sentence – is likewise in the laps of the ayatollahs, as debkafile wrote on January 24. The German and Israeli officials close to the negotiations agree that Nasrallah would never have said off the top of his head in his Sunday broadcast that the missing Israeli navigator is not in Iran but in Lebanon; he must have had his instructions from the highest level of the hardline Iranian leadership.
Until now, the Hizballah have insisted they have no information on Ron Arad and denied he was in Lebanon. So what was behind this surprise change of face?
It is assumed in Berlin and Jerusalem that Iran is taking advantage of the swap to further its own ends. A breakthrough may be in the offing, whether a step or the release of information that casts light on the seventeen-year old mystery surrounding the fate of the young Israeli navigator who bailed out alive in Lebanon and was generally supposed to have vanished in Iranian captivity. But neither capital understands why the Iranians would suddenly want to be helpful now.
Ron Arad’s relatives, after campaigning indefatigably for long years on his behalf, responded to Nasrallah’s harangue with a statement that will reduce his bargaining chips: If Ron is proven dead, they said, we do not ask the Israeli government to let terrorists go free in order to pay for his remains.

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