August 31, 2006

Lebanon-Israel: And the two captured Israeli soldiers?

On July 11, Hizballah gunmen seized Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev along the Israel-Lebanon border. Despite a month-long Israeli military campaign against Hizballah, adoption of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1701, deployment of the Lebanese Army south of the Litani River and augmentation of the existing (and ineffective) United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), the two soldiers remain in Hizballah custody.

It does not appear that is going to change anytime soon. On August 30, two weeks after Lebanon and Israel agreed to a ceasefire, a Hizballah member of the Lebanese cabinet said that the group will not release the two soldiers unconditionally, but only as part of a prisoner exchange. A prisoner exchange was Hizballah's reason for the seizure of the soldiers in the first place.

Perhaps I have misread the third paragraph of the preamble of UNSCR 1701:

Emphasizing the need for an end of violence, but at the same time emphasizing the need to address urgently the causes that have given rise to the current crisis, including by the unconditional release of the abducted Israeli soldiers.

Israel, which demanded the unconditional release of the soldiers, has now acquiesced to Hizballah's position. Although the release of the soldiers was the stated reason for the military operations in Lebanon in which over 1,000 Lebanese were killed and another 3,500 wounded, the government of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has stated that they are willing to engage in negotiations with the Lebanese government for the return of the pair.

Olmert has devised a "fig-leaf" whereby Hizballah will transfer the two Israelis to the custody of the Lebanese government. Israel will then negotiate with the Lebanese government and avoid direct negotiations with Hizballah, considered by Israel (and the United States) to be a terrorist organization.

Given this about face in the hard line it once took, Olmert has only added to the problems his government faces in the rough and tumble world of domestic Israeli politics. There are already calls for his resignation, demands for inquiries in to the conduct of the war, and rallies in Tel Aviv over the unresolved situation with the soldiers.

Why is Olmert agreeing with the Hizballah position on negotiating for the release of the two soldiers? Olmert's about face also comes at a time when Hizballah leader Hasan Nasrallah admitted that he underestimated the Israeli response to the seizure of the two soldiers and had he known the ferocity of the Israeli response, he would not have ordered the operation.

At this sign of weakness on Nasrallah's part, the last thing Olmert should do is legitimize Hizballah's demand for a prisexchangehange. Doing so invites more of the same. According to the Al-Hayat, an Arabic-language Lebanese daily paper, a group in the Golan Heights is now planning to kidnap Israeli soldiers to force Israel into negotiations with them, claiming that since the tactic worked for Hizballah, it might work for them.