Hezbollah getting pragmatic
as Israel stands its ground.
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elations between Israel and
Hezbollah may be reaching
a historic turning point.
For one of the first
times in the. complicated relationship
between Israel and the radical Shi'ite
organization, it seems that Hezbollah
has blinked first. A few days ago,
Hezbollah allowed a German mediator
to visit kidnapped Israeli businessman
Elhanan Tannenbaum, who is being
held in Lebanon.
Despite its threats to kidnap Israeli
soldiers to speedup negotiations for the
release of Lebanese prisoners in Israel,
Hezbollah gave in to the Israeli position
that a precondition for negotiations was
a sign that Tannenbaum was still alive.
In a speech three months ago, the
secretary-general of Hezbollah, Sheik
Hassan Nasrallah, purposely was vague
about Tannenbaum's fate in an effort
to keep Israel guessing — and to raise
the value of a possible deal for infor-
mation on the captured businessman.
Indeed, in the past, Nasrallah has
demanded a high price — such as the
release of thousands of Palestinian
prisoners and 12 Lebanese held in
Israel, in exchange for information on
missing Israelis believed held in
Lebanon. Eventually, however,
Hezbollah was forced to deliver the
information first, allowing German
mediator Ernest Uhrlau to visit
Tannenbaum. Uhrlau reported that
the prisoner was in fair condition.
The Shi'ite militant group was
immediately rewarded. On Monday,
Israel released the bodies of two
Hezbollah fighters killed in south
Lebanon in the late 1990s, turning
them over to the Red Cross in
All of a sudden, a deal with
Hezbollah seemed more possible than
ever before. Israel is demanding the
return of Tannenbaum and three sol-
diers kidnapped along the border three
years ago, who Israel believes are dead.
In exchange, Israel is offering to
release 12 Lebanese prisoners, includ-
ing Shi'ite activist Mustafa Dirani and
Sheik Abdul Karim Obeid, one of the
leaders of Hezbollah.
This is a breakthrough, said reserve
Brig. Gen. Rafi Noi, former head of
Israel's northern command. According
to Noi, it is significant that Hezbollah
made the first move this week, seeming
just as eager to strike a deal as Israel.
Pressure Is On
Three factors led to the apparent
change in Hezbollah's attitude:
• First, there is growing internal
pressure. Families of Lebanese prison-
ers held in Israel are losing patience
over Hezbollah's failure to reach an
agreement for the release of their rela-
tives. The Shi'ite group is facing grow-
ing criticism that it needlessly escalates
the conflict along Israel's border at a
time when Lebanon finally is recover-
ing economically from years of war.
• Second, there is increasing interna-
tional pressure on Hezbollah. The war
in Iraq and heavy American pressure
on Syria and Iran sent a clear signal to
Hezbollah that it no longer enjoys the
automatic support of its two state
• Third, there is concern that esca-
lating tensions or even just maintain-
ing the status quo with Israel could
jeopardize Hezbollah's status in
But both Israel and Hezbollah are
dancing on a tightrope. Two weeks
ago, relations seemed to reach a dan-
gerous point when Hezbollah fired an
anti-aircraft missile across the border.
The rocket killed an Israeli youth in
the town of Shlomi and forced resi-
dents of the northern Israeli city of
Kiryat Shmona into bomb shelters.
Thanks to tough Israeli warnings
and American mediation, Hezbollah
took no further action and quiet has
returned to Israel's northern border.
At present, Hezbollah fighters are
deployed all along Israel's border with
Lebanon, from Metulla in the east to
Rosh Hanikra in the west. They man
positions and fly their flags, often
within view of Israeli soldiers on the
other side of the border fence.
Hezbollah also is believed to have
thousands of missiles deployed in
southern Lebanon that could hit
major Israeli population centers.
"There is a new situation and
Hezbollah faces new dilemmas," Middle