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Hard Questions, Tough Answers with Yossi Alpher - April 11, 2007

Questions on Iran's release of Britain's 15; Pelosi visit to Syria; Impact if Israel releases Fateh leader Marwan Baghouthi?

Q. Does Iran's release of Britain's 15 sailors and marines offer any hopeful precedent for an Israeli-Palestinian and/or Israeli-Hezbollah prisoner exchange?

A. Almost certainly not. Indeed, the differences between the two arenas are far more instructive than any similarities.

In the Iranian case, the regime first embraced the kidnapping operation but then, having reaped some sort of domestic propaganda benefit from the British troops' confessions, backed down in the face of British pressure backed up by US and British military maneuvers. In other words, the Tehran regime led by Ayatollah Khamenei was in sufficient control throughout the fortnight-long drama to be able to impose a diplomatic cost-benefit calculus on the Islamic Guards and their enthusiastic patron, President Ahmedinezhad. Moreover, if the objective of the Persian Gulf abduction was to force the United States to release Iranians imprisoned in Iraq, it largely failed; only one Iranian, a diplomat, was released as a gesture during the two-week drama.

The Iran-UK incident also had a different genesis than those involving Israel. The decision to take British troops prisoner appears to reflect Iran's anxiety over recent months' US-orchestrated pressures and sanctions, including the arrest of Iranians in Iraq, and Tehran's perceived need to retaliate in kind.

In the Israel-related cases, the reality has been very different. In Lebanon, the Siniora government was unable to prevent the abduction of two Israeli soldiers last July 12, and ever since then it has been unable to impose its will on Hezbollah and release the soldiers. Nor has Hezbollah ever sought to exploit captured Israelis for propaganda purposes by forcing them to "confess" in front of the TV cameras. Then too, Hezbollah stated from the outset that its objective was a prisoner exchange. Not only were its actions of July 12 not provoked by Israel--the IDF had been bending over backwards to avoid antagonizing the Lebanese Shi'ite organization.

Most of the Lebanese circumstances pertain to the case of Hamas in Gaza as well. The June 25 attack and abduction of Gilad Shalit were unprovoked; a ceasefire had prevailed. While Hamas supported the abduction (President Mahmoud Abbas condemned it), it has since become clear (e.g., with the more recent kidnapping of a BBC journalist) that the Ismail Haniyeh government exercises no direct control over the kidnappers, whose main component is a dissident terrorist/criminal clan. Shalit, too, has not been exploited for propaganda purposes, and is seen solely as an instrument for negotiating the release by Israel of Palestinian prisoners in its jails.

The Hamas government's difficulties in handling those negotiations are well illustrated by the many months it took Hamas to put together a list of 450 prisoners whose release by Israel it demands. The lack of effective central Palestinian governance has been reflected in the need to negotiate with each Palestinian faction over the number and identity of prisoners it can add to the list.

Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas all belong to the Islamic militant camp. Iran and Hezbollah are Shi'ite; Iranian influence over Hezbollah is considerable, to the extent that the latter is often considered a proxy of Tehran, while Iranian influence over the Sunni Islamic Hamas movement has grown in recent years. Nevertheless, the idea that the pragmatism recently shown by Tehran will rub off on Hamas or Hezbollah appears to have little basis in the realities of the situation in the Arab-Israel arena.

One important additional factor that distinguishes the status of Arab prisoners in Israel from that of the British Royal Navy personnel held by Iran is that Israeli obstinacy regarding the freeing of veteran terrorist prisoners in its jails, many of whom long ago received harsh sentences inconceivable in Israeli domestic courts, has been a major factor in impelling its terrorist enemies to go to great lengths to abduct Israelis.

Q. Apropos the Israeli-Palestinian exchange, how important is it for Israel to release Fateh leader Marwan Baghouthi?

A. Barghouthi (Marwan, not to be confused with Mustafa Barghouthi, a distant cousin recently appointed PA minister of information) is frequently mentioned in some circles as a likely successor to President Abbas (Abu Mazen) and even as a kind of "Mandela" who could unite the Palestinians and rescue them from their chaos. As the senior Fateh official in Israeli jails, he is at or near the top of the list of 450 prisoners recently submitted to Israel. PM Olmert has stated in the past that he would not release Barghouthi in an exchange, but that determination obviously could change in the course of negotiations. Moreover, Olmert might not be the prime minister by the time these negotiations reach fruition.

In this context, it is important to note that the negotiations are nowhere near conclusion. The recent optimistic media spin that accompanied the delivery to Israel of a list of 450 Palestinian prisoners reflects the Palestinians' need to signal the international community that they are making progress toward a prisoner exchange that will, they hope, open the gates to financial support and diplomatic contacts. It also reflects Olmert's need to be perceived by the Israeli public as "delivering".

But realities on the ground are harsher. Israel quickly reviewed the Palestinian list and expressed "disappointment and reservations" because it comprised so many senior terrorist commanders and others with "blood on their hands" whose deeds were carried out in recent years. (There were hints that it may agree to release those incarcerated since before the Oslo process began, however heinous their deeds.) We will almost certainly now encounter a negotiating pause while Israel registers its objections via Egyptian mediators and the Palestinians discuss among their various factions the identity of alternative candidates for the list.

Refusal by Israel to release Barghouthi could be a deal-breaker--not for Hamas but for Fateh, where his popularity has soared since his incarceration and in view of the central role he played from jail in drafting the terms for a Palestinian ceasefire and unity government. Israel's difficulty in releasing Barghouthi is his role in sponsoring (from his base in Ramallah) attacks inside Israel that killed five Israelis during the recent intifada, for which he is serving five life sentences. He has not expressed regret; indeed, during the intifada Barghouthi adopted more extreme positions toward Israel--e.g., concerning Israel's right to exist and the right of return issue--than those normally associated with him during the negotiations of the 1990s, when he had extensive contacts with the Israeli peace camp. One additional difficulty for Israel is precisely the fact that Barghouthi's name appears along with jailed leaders of Hamas and the PFLP. If Israel releases Barghouthi but not the others (on the assumption that this would strengthen the moderate Palestinian camp), Hamas is likely to reject the deal.

One could argue against releasing Barghouthi because of his recent extremism and the relatively fresh blood on his hands. One could equally argue in favor of his release--because he is a Fateh leader capable of rallying Palestinians against Hamas' positions, he did not participate personally in attacks against Israelis, and his extreme positions and actions could be attributed to the intifada atmosphere and demands made upon him by Yasser Arafat.

Barghouthi is definitely not a Mandela. He has never preached non-violence. He has no exclusive claim to Fateh leadership instead of or following Abbas. Once out of jail, his current leadership position would be challenged by a number of rivals.

If Israel does release him, it will not be in the first phase of a prisoner exchange. The two sides have agreed, via Egyptian mediators, on a three stage process: 1) Shalit's transfer to Egyptian custody in exchange for Israel's release of women, juvenile and ill prisoners. 2) Shalit's transfer to Israel in exchange for release of a second group of Palestinians. 3) Several months later (in the interim, Egypt will guarantee Israel's good intentions to the PA), release of a third group of Palestinians including senior political figures like Barghouthi. Israel will try to present this final release as a gesture to Abbas rather than a contractual obligation to Hamas.

The list of 450 Palestinian prisoners recently mentioned by the Palestinians evidently does not include all those to be released in all three phases. A figure of 1,000 or even 1,300 Palestinians has also been mentioned. A 450-to-one or even 1,000-to-one ratio is not unusual for these exchanges; in 1983 Israel released 4,765 Palestinians to Fateh (then still based mainly in Lebanon) in return for six Israeli soldiers.

Q. The Pelosi visit to Damascus and the Bush administration's reaction briefly put the spotlight on the prospects for an Israel-Syria peace process. How realistic is this?

A. Under present circumstances, it is not a realistic proposition at all. Pelosi's April 4 meeting with Syrian President Bashar Asad and its aftermath tell us more about American presidential politics and Israel's involvement in them than about an Israel-Syria peace process.

What interested the Israeli public about Pelosi's visit was not Bush's criticism of her as betraying administration policies so much as the message of peace from Israel that she relayed to Asad. Olmert was quick to deny that he had sent any such announcement to Asad via Pelosi. The Israeli prime minister's zeal to identify openly with the Bush line in controversial Middle East issues (he has publicly endorsed Bush's position regarding withdrawal from Iraq, too) places him squarely, and unnecessarily, in the Republican camp.

What Olmert's aides claim they sought to signal Asad through Pelosi's good offices was that Israel neither anticipated nor sought a military clash with Syria next summer and that it would value a reduction in bilateral tensions. This, against a backdrop of warnings from senior Israeli intelligence officials that Asad, despairing of a peace process with Israel, might initiate a military confrontation with it in an effort to jump-start a peace process, much as Anwar Sadat did in October 1973. Scenarios for such a war, portrayed extensively in the Israeli media, include everything from a full-fledged invasion of the Golan and missile attack on the Israeli rear to a limited attempt to "snatch" a small piece of territory on the Golan as an initial bargaining chip. Behind the message Pelosi was entrusted with was the attempt to deter Asad by signaling that Israel is aware of his possible intentions and can thwart them.

One could of course argue that it is precisely in order to avoid a war with Syria that Israel should be exploring Asad's invitation to talk. But from here to an Olmert initiative to renew negotiations with Damascus is an assumption that appears to have little foundation in current global, regional and Israeli domestic political realities. More about this next week.