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(photo credit: Channel 10)
As exchanges with Hizbullah go, Monday's swap of the body of one missing Israeli for two Lebanese corpses and one prisoner who had reportedly become mentally ill definitely ranks as a relatively minor transaction.
That assessment is not meant to minimize the peace of mind one hopes it has brought to the family of Gavriel Daweet, the Israeli Ethiopian who appears to have drowned off the Haifa coast in 2005 and later washed up on Lebanese shores. But clearly the significance of the swap lies in whether it will serve as a preview of bigger deals to come involving the other Israelis who have gone missing in, or were kidnapped to, Lebanon: Eldad Regev, Ehud Goldwasser, Ron Arad and the soldiers missing in action from the 1982 battle of Sultan Yacoub.
According to reports, Monday's exchange did in fact include "sensitive information" on Arad, missing since he parachuted into Lebanon in 1986, which the government is now checking out. If indeed such information was given by Hizbullah and provides leads to Arad's fate, then surely there must be more to Monday's deal than has been made public.
Until now, all efforts by Israel to obtain anything from Hizbullah or any other source regarding Arad's condition or whereabouts have been rebuffed; it's inconceivable that the relatively minor price Israel paid Monday would by itself have been enough to finally achieve such a breakthrough.
Monday's news has thus only increased speculation that such a deal involving information on Arad, or Regev and Goldwasser, may be connected with the release from a German prison planned for December of an Iranian citizen, Kazem Darabi, and a Lebanese, Abbas Rhayel, who were serving life sentences for the assassination of four Iranian Kurdish dissidents in a Berlin restaurant in 1992, possibly on orders from Iranian intelligence.
Earlier this week, German officials denied the release was connected with any arrangement with Teheran, and German media reported that Chancellor Angela Merkel had turned down a personal request from Prime Minister Ehud Olmert not to free the men. It is possible, though, to construct a scenario wherein this was deliberate disinformation, designed to conceal the sensitive machinations of a larger deal that also involved the missing Israelis.
Maybe - but all this has a familiar ring to it, and one that is less than encouraging. Much of the hopeful speculation around Monday's deal bares similarities to the so-called "second phase" of the exchange between Israel and Hizbullah that freed Elhanan Tannenbaum in January 2004. It's worth recalling what the terms of that "phase" were - and the fact that it never took place.
The price paid for Tannenbaum, a shady businessman held captive in Lebanon, was high - more than 400 Palestinian and Lebanese terrorists. The deal was justified in part by reports that it would include Hizbullah later releasing information on Arad - just like on Monday - and possibly the Sultan Yacoub MIAs. But as the months passed, that information never materialized, and Hizbullah reportedly upped the price by also demanding the release of Lebanese terrorist Samir Kuntar.
A bone fragment supposedly belonging to Arad, and obtained by the German intelligence officials who mediated the deal, was provided to Israel six months after Tannenbaum's release, but DNA tests on it proved negative. Some veteran campaigners for Arad's release later accused the Sharon government of deliberately raising false hopes for the "second phase" of the Tannenbaum deal to make the first phase more palatable.
There is no need for such a sweetener this time around, given the low price Israel paid Monday. But there was certainly motivation on the part of Hizbullah to spread disinformation and raise false expectations prior to the exchange.
Having scored the release of a Lebanese prisoner and the bodies of two of his fighters yesterday, Hizbullah chief Hassan Nasrallah has presented his movement with a nice little present for Id al-Fitr. He has also managed to assert Hizbullah's relevance and to remind his countrymen of its struggle with Israel just ahead of the Lebanese presidential elections scheduled for later this month.
Most of all, the deal and its attendant rumors give Nasrallah another chance to indulge in one of his favorite pastimes, playing cruel mind games with the hopes of the Israel public, and with the families of its missing soldiers.
Once again, Germany's intelligence agency was reportedly a key mediator in an Israeli-Hizbullah deal. Once again, the Arab media is awash with all kinds of unsourced speculation. Once again, we are hearing that information about Ron Arad is involved.
And once again, we should hope for the best, but remain realistically cautious, prepared to again be disappointed.