Security and Defense: Anniversary angst

Not even the planned prisoner swap will bring a sense of closure on the Second Lebanon War.

Lebanon war 224.88 (photo credit: AP )
Lebanon war 224.88
(photo credit: AP )
If everything goes as planned, Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser will be returned late next week - likely in coffins, unfortunately. The prisoner swap, which will closely follow Monday's second anniversary of their kidnapping and the eruption of what has come to be known as the Second Lebanon War, has raised questions of existential importance for the country, which has been gripped in recent weeks by concerns of whether it is paying too high a price for the reservists' return. Israel will release Lebanese murderer Samir Kuntar, responsible for four deaths in a 1979 raid on Nahariya, four Hizbullah guerrillas and close to 200 bodies of Lebanese and Palestinian combatants. In return, Israel will receive body parts belonging to soldiers killed during the war, as well as Goldwasser and Regev and the report on Ron Arad that defense officials have already said will not shed any light on the missing navigator's fate. While some have praised the deal as a demonstration of the country's commitment to its soldiers, others such as Defense Minister Ehud Barak have indicated that the country can no longer essentially be held captive - in its policies and operations - to its kidnapped soldiers. Take the case of Gilad Schalit. Since he was kidnapped just over two years ago, every move Israel has made vis-à-vis the Palestinians and particularly the Gaza Strip has been dictated by concern for his welfare. "Before every operation we had to ask ourselves what would happen to Schalit and before every political concession we had to ask how it would affect Schalit," explained one senior official. For these reasons Barak this week set up a special team to study the issue of future prisoner exchanges, to be chaired by Israel Prize-winning ethicist Asa Kasher and include former Supreme Court justice Meir Shamgar and former Defense Ministry director-general Amos Yaron. The committee's primary job will be to formulate a policy according to which the country will henceforth operate in the case of a kidnapped soldier. One senior member of the IDF General Staff told The Jerusalem Post this week that he envied the United States, which does not negotiate with terrorists - a policy that has in recent years brought about a dramatic drop in the number of kidnappings of American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. While the prisoner swap may bring a degree of closure to the Second Lebanon War, which was launched under the pretext of "returning the missing soldiers," Israel's relationship with Hizbullah is still far from peaceful. On Wednesday, intelligence officials briefed the security cabinet on Hizbullah's rearmament since the war and revealed that the group has 40,000 rockets and missiles, three times more than it had in July 2006. In addition, it has missiles with a long enough range to strike at targets from Haifa to Dimona and Arad. The rearmament is not a reason to go to war against Hizbullah, but it is of grave concern, considering the possibility that the group will again try to kidnap more soldiers. At the same time, Israel's hands are tied when it comes to countering the buildup, and ahead of the war's second anniversary Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni this week launched a PR campaign aimed at European countries which contribute to UNIFIL. On Tuesday, Livni flew up to the border with Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini for a briefing with head of IDF Planning Maj.-Gen. Amir Eshel - in charge of relations with the UN. Eshel told the two that Hizbullah has succeeded in rebuilding its infrastructure in southern Lebanon right under UNIFIL's nose. Later in the day, Barak phoned German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner to stress that Israel would not be able to continue sitting on the sidelines as Security Council Resolution 1701 - passed to by the UN to stop the Second Lebanon War - disintegrates. The strategy is twofold. First, to try to influence UNIFIL's main contributors - Germany, France, Italy and Spain - by getting them to take more initiatives in uncovering Hizbullah positions and arms caches in southern Lebanon and preventing its rearmament. And second, to clarify the peacekeeping force's rules of engagement and to obtain a commitment from the UN that it will engage armed Hizbullah guerrillas when it spots them and not only when it is fired upon. Under the current order, UNIFIL operates according to a Chapter 6 mandate which allows it to only open fire in self defense and prevents it from entering Lebanese villages without an escort from the Lebanese armed forces. While Israel would like the UN force to receive a Chapter 7 mandate that would give it more robust enforcement capabilities, it is aware that the UN and Lebanon will not agree so it is hoping for the second best possibility - a clarification of the rules of engagement. The move comes after a number of cases when UNIFIL did not report illegal Hizbullah activity in southern Lebanon to the UN Security Council as required by its mandate. One example was in March, when UN forces confronted a suspicious pickup truck that was carrying weaponry and armed men following it in two vehicles. Defense officials said Monday that a full report on the incident was not submitted to the Security Council. Another case took place recently when UNIFIL troops were forced by local Lebanese residents to delete photos of suspicious underground cables. The deletion of the photos was revealed in a report submitted to the UN. While Israel is concerned with these developments, there is no thinking within the defense establishment to recommend military action against Hizbullah without a provocation. Assessments are that Hizbullah is not currently interested in another round and is more focused on its recent political victory in Beirut. Hizbullah's interests, CIA Director Michael Hayden was quoted as saying Wednesday, are also not always directly connected to its financer Iran, and thus the Shi'ite guerrilla group may not get involved in potential retaliatory attacks following a future US or Israeli strike against Iranian nuclear facilities. The one track that does have potential to minimize the Hizbullah threat is currently taking place in Turkey, which had its own taste of terror this week. Just a few blocks from the attack on the United States Consulate is the hotel where Israeli and Syrian negotiators have been meeting over the past few months for indirect peace talks. The last time talks were held was in 2000, when they fell apart despite claims the sides were close to a deal that included a full Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights. Now, there is speculation regarding Sunday's summit of European and Mediterranean leaders and the possibility that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Syrian President Bashar Assad will shake hands. A Syrian with experience in unofficial "track two" negotiations claims that peace with Syria would be far warmer than Israel's current relations with its peace partners in Egypt and Jordan and would prompt Assad to cut off ties with Iran and Hamas and support for Hizbullah. This will only happen, the Syrian says, once Israel completely withdraws from the Golan. But considering the strong Israeli domestic opposition to such a withdrawal it is difficult to imagine how Olmert, or any other future prime minister, would pull it off. That is possibly where the Shaba Farms comes into play. On Tuesday, in his meeting with Frattini, Olmert told the Italian foreign minister that Israel is willing to negotiate with Lebanon directly about the Mount Dov/Shaba Farms issue. Olmert's willingness to relinquish control over the Shaba Farms appears to be connected to the talks with Syria. While the land would likely be handed over to UN control, it is questionable who it belongs to - Syria or Lebanon. As the experienced Syrian source sees it, this makes no difference since by giving the land over to the UN, Israel would be signaling to Syria that it is serious about peace. What would Israel get in exchange? The Syrian doesn't provide a detailed answer but does say that Damascus would be willing to offer some confidence-building measures of its own. One possibility that has been proposed is returning the remains of Eli Cohen, the legendary Israeli spy who was hanged in Damascus in 1965.