'Prisoner swap possible in 'opportune' regional situation'

Lebanese politician tells 'Post' that climate of regional calm also what is allowing indirect negotiations to take place between Israel and Syria.

qatar  lebanon conf 224 (photo credit: AP)
qatar lebanon conf 224
(photo credit: AP)
A new political and regional climate makes the time ripe for a prisoner exchange between Israel and Hizbullah, a Lebanese parliamentarian told The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday. "There is a regional climate that is leaning toward a calming-down [tahadiyeh] that is helping to achieve some solutions. Among them was the Doha agreement," said Elie Aoun of Walid Jumblatt's Democratic Gathering Party. "If there [had not been] a helpful regional climate, the Doha agreement would not have been achieved." Thus "the situation is more opportune" for a prisoner exchange, he said. The breakthrough Doha agreement, brokered by Arab League mediators in Qatar earlier this month, ended an 18-month political crisis between the ruling coalition and the opposition and was signed in the wake of Lebanon's worst internal fighting since the 1975-90 civil war. Several regional players - including Israel, Syria, Iraq and Iran - have a desire today for a calming of tensions, he said. It is this same climate, Aoun said, that is "helping the achievement of an agreement concerning the captives that are in Israeli prisons." It is also what has allowed indirect negotiations to take place between Israel and Syria, as well as Egyptian mediation efforts between Israel and Hamas and an easing of tensions in Iraq. Media reports have indicated this week that a prisoner swap between Israel and Hizbullah is close, and Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah has also suggested a deal is near. Based on Nasrallah's fiery speech Monday night in Beirut, Aoun believed it was certain that negotiations between Israel and Hizbullah over a prisoner exchange "will soon lead to a tangible result." Nasrallah "wouldn't be able to speak in this way if he didn't have information" that indicated that, he said. Hizbullah considers the prisoner issue to "be a big achievement that the resistance is achieving in a peaceful way," Aoun said. "This gives the resistance a push and continuity in the Lebanese arena at the current time." At least one observer agreed that a deal on a prisoner swap could be struck, since the Doha agreement was a "regional unblocking of the Lebanese situation, and this may mean that other issues will also follow." However, others were more cautious about the likelihood of an exchange in the near future, despite recent media reports suggesting that a deal was close and Nasrallah's promise that Lebanese prisoners in Israeli jails would soon come home. "I'm very skeptical about any indications in the media of an imminent deal," a Beirut-based Western journalist told the Post, noting that such reports often have not come to fruition in the past. "I think Nasrallah raised a swap mainly because he often does in his big public speeches. The speech [Monday] night was partly about the resistance and the reason why he thinks Lebanon needs to retain resistance against Israel. A component of that is to win back Lebanese detainees. He wasn't necessarily signaling that a deal was imminent." Nasrallah, he added, was trying to reassure the Lebanese people that the resistance was geared toward protecting Lebanon against Israeli aggression and had nothing to do with Hizbullah "taking power for power's sake" in Lebanon. Hizbullah officials said they were responding to the Lebanese government's decision to outlaw the Shi'ite party's communications network and oust an airport security chief close to it. In his speech on Monday, Nasrallah put everyone on notice in Lebanon that Hizbullah's primary concern was the liberation of the Shaba farms from Israeli control and "making sure that the discussion of Hizbullah arms and its role should be within that framework," said Prof. Judith Harik of Matn University in Beirut. Nasrallah also warned against any attempts to disarm the Shi'ite party and emphasized that any defense strategy should be framed against Israel as Lebanon's sole enemy. With Nasrallah saying in his speech that Hizbullah allowed no one to dictate its actions, it was signaling greater independence and strength to supporters and foes alike, Harik added. Although many see the organization as a puppet of Iran, it has made significant financial strides to lessen its dependency on the country, including establishing a micro-credit organization that has amassed large funds that are used in part to sustain its network of social services, she said. "Hizbullah is restating its position that its role in Lebanon and the fight against Israel will continue - and basically, in that respect, that the US strategy to confront and weaken Hizbullah has failed miserably," she said. "The main message was that Hizbullah is here to stay."