Jul 10, 2008

World - A dubious trade

WHAT is the right price for a dead soldier? The question has gripped Israel this week after the government said that it had accepted a prisoner swap with Hizbullah, Lebanon’s Shia militia.
Under the deal, Israel will surrender Samir Kuntar, a Lebanese who has been in jail since he killed three Israelis in 1979, as well as four other Lebanese prisoners and the remains of several more. Later on, it will turn over an unspecified number of Palestinian prisoners to Hamas, the Islamist movement that controls the Gaza Strip. In return it will get back Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser, two soldiers whom Hizbullah kidnapped two years ago, sparking a five-week-long war, along with a report on the fate of Ron Arad, an air force officer whose plane was downed over Lebanon in 1986 and who was known to be alive until talks to release him broke down in 1988. Mr Arad has long been presumed dead, and the government says Mr Goldwasser and Mr Regev probably are too.
Some newspaper pundits praised the exchange as proof of how highly Israel values its soldiers, even when dead. Others mournfully recalled the glorious days when Israel refused to do deals with hijackers and hostage-takers and launched daring rescue raids instead (though in this case, a raid would have had little chance of success). And the heads of Israel’s domestic and foreign security services both opposed the deal as giving the enemy too much for too little. Hizbullah’s chest-thumping over having liberated captive “freedom fighters” can hardly make Israeli hawks sleep easier. That a little-known group claiming affiliation to Hizbullah also took responsibility for a bulldozer rampage by a young Palestinian in Jerusalem on July 2nd, which claimed three Israeli lives, has added to the unease.

But Ehud Olmert, Israel’s prime minister, needed a victory. Corruption scandals, criticisms over his handling of the 2006 Lebanon war and pressure from the missing soldiers’ families through the media had pushed Labour, the second party in Mr Olmert’s governing coalition, to present him with a choice: face early parliamentary elections, or hold primaries within his Kadima party by September 25th. He chose the latter. Despite everything, if he notches up some successes before then he might still see off his rivals within Kadima.
The Lebanese swap, which could take place in the next fortnight, would be the first success. The next could be to close a deal with Hamas to exchange Gilad Shalit, a soldier it has been holding (alive) in Gaza for two years, for more Palestinian prisoners—possibly over a thousand, making it the most expensive such swap in Israel’s history. Again, for a weakened prime minister, the pressure to get Mr Shalit back safely has been intense.

But the talks with Hamas, being mediated by Egypt, can go ahead only if a ceasefire that the two sides agreed last month holds. It has been breached almost since the first moment. Other militant groups in Gaza have launched a handful of mortars and rockets at Israel, provoking exasperation from Hamas, which seems unable to control them. Israel, for its part, has kept shut border crossings with Gaza that it was supposed to open, and several times Israeli troops have shot at Palestinians who strayed near the Gaza border fence, injuring at least one.
The third thing that might win Mr Olmert some points is the peace talks he recently launched with Syria. Direct talks last foundered in 2000, though the two sides were reportedly close to a deal in which Israel would return the Golan Heights that it occupied in 1967. The current talks have so far been indirect, with Turkish mediators shuttling between Israeli and Syrian officials in Ankara. But there is much speculation that Mr Olmert may talk to or shake hands with Bashar Assad, the Syrian president, at a summit of European and Mediterranean leaders in Paris on July 13th.

That would be a small but significant gesture. But further progress would still be hard. Domestic opposition in Israel to returning the Golan, where about 17,000 Israelis have settled and many more take their holidays, is strong. Israelis want another sign of goodwill from Syria, such as returning the remains of Eli Cohen, an Israeli spy who was convicted and hanged in 1965. A Syrian with experience in unofficial “track-two” negotiations suggests that Israel could make its own gesture by relinquishing the Shabaa Farms, a small, unpopulated nub of territory on the Golan which Lebanon claims as its own. America has proposed that Israel hand it over to the UN. “It doesn’t matter who it really belongs to,” says the Syrian. “Give it up and you would kill two birds with one stone.”

No comments: