Hezbollah 1, Israel 0

With the successful completion of the Israel-Hezbollah prisoner exchange, the Lebanese Islamic group has taken yet another step in the direction of becoming a full-fledged political party in Lebanon. Founded in the early 1980s as a direct response to the Israeli occupation of south Lebanon, Hezbollah has been able to capture the imagination of not only of the disenfranchised Shiite population, but of a large swath of Lebanese citizens in general. By adhering to their principles since its founding, the leaders of Hezbollah have proven to everyone that they mean business and are not about to compromise their values, whether you agree with them or not.

It is important to recognize that in the eyes of most Arabs, Hezbollah is the only organization or government that has forced Israel to withdraw from occupied Arab territory under fire. The prisoner exchange has to be seen in this light. Yet again, they have succeeded in achieving their objectives vis-a-vis Israel. Their strategies have proven to be both prudent internally and appealing externally. One also must look at the level of professionalism displayed by the organization while negotiating the prisoner swap. In the end, only someone who has the big picture in mind could bring such delicate talks to a fruitful conclusion. They did not alter their positions and stances according to the flavor of the day and showed the Israelis that they are a force to be dealt with. The prisoner exchange also strengthened the idea that Hezbollah is an organization that can be counted on to deliver what it promises.

Israel always claims that it will not under any circumstance negotiate with what they term “terrorist organizations.” Taking this in stride, Hezbollah more or less ignored the Israelis and let them come to them. The circumstances regarding how Israeli businessman Tannenbaum was captured have become a mute point for all but the Israelis. The fact is that Hezbollah was able to exchange three bodies and an alleged criminal for over 400 Lebanese and Palestinian prisoners and abductees and the vast majority of Lebanese applaud them for this. And rightly so, for these 400 people were returned to their wives, mothers, and parents after being imprisoned for many years in Israel. If this doesn’t raise the sympathy effect for Hezbollah, I don’t know what would.

An interesting aspect of the swap which is not addressed often enough is the win-win situation created by the negotiations. Despite the numerous obstacles (no direct contacts between the parties, Hezbollah being on the US government’s list of terrorist organizations, the long history of mutual animosity), mutually beneficial talks did take place and an agreement was hammered out. Any discussion between enemies has to be counted as a positive development especially in this tortured region. A great deal of credit has to go to Germany for the excellent way in which it handled these very sensitive negotiations. Taking things from a humanitarian perspective, the good offices of the Federal Intelligence Agency (the German equivalent of the CIA) did a great service in showing that keeping the doors open to all parties definitely has its advantages. The US administration’s policy of ostracizing all those who disagree with their positions, does nothing but blind and handcuff America’s diplomats in the region. A self-defeating measure, it makes it much more difficult to advance the values, interests, and policies that US President George Bush is always talking about. I would hope US Secretary of State Powell can use the impressive German mediating role as an example of effective diplomacy in the Middle East. The Berliners took an extra low profile approach to the negotiations, and abstained from gloating about it afterwards. This can only enhance Germany’s reputation as an honest broker in the region, especially when you compare it to the United States’. Also not to be forgotten is the de facto support–both implicit and explicit–”that the Lebanese government afforded Hezbollah in its dealing with Israel, demonstrated the political agility of Lebanese President Emile Lahoud. This provided Hezbollah with an almost “official” cover and certainly gave them official sanction.

To turn the well-worn argument around that it doesn’t pay to negotiate with “terrorists,” I believe that the prisoner exchange has proven to Israel that it doesn’t pay to abduct Lebanese nationals as bargaining chips. Hopefully, enough of the right conclusions will be drawn by all the parties involved.