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Home Page > Articles in English > Prisoner Exchange

NEWS FLASH : On Dec. 7, 2004, the "Born to Freedom Foundation" has launched a $10 million campaign to obtain information on missing Israeli soldier Ron Arad, who was excluded from the prisoner exchange deal with Hizbollah. CNN, BBC and Eurosport, however, have refused to air a fully-paid ad by the "Born to Freedom Foundation" on the release of Arad, saying that it was political in nature.

November 2003: A controversial Hizbollah-Israel Prisoner Exchange raised many questions
A Deal Gone Bad

by Tekla Szymanski

Ron Arad“You Have Abandoned My Father,” read the big headline on the front page of Tel Aviv's centrist Yediot Aharonot (Nov. 7, 2003). Under it, the paper reprinted a letter by Ron Arad's daughter, Yuval, 19, to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Ron Arad is the Israeli air force navigator shot down in 1986 in southern Lebanon and captured by Lebanese guerillas. He is believed to be a prisoner in Iran.

Yuval's accusation summed up the somber mood in Israel after the Sharon cabinet's Nov. 9 2003 approval, by a narrow 12-11 margin, of a prisoner exchange with Lebanon's Hizbollah. The agreement, however, was put on hold until its final adoption in January 2004.

"Against Hizballah, Israel has proven that it mainly understands the language of force," writes Tel Aviv's centrist Yediot Acharonot (Jan. 25, 2004). "The Hizballah leadership can rest on its laurels; in negotiations with Israel, it seems that kidnapping and murder are effective methods of blackmail." While the editors aver that "the exchange deal with Hizballah is, therefore, bad and flawed," they add, "Nevertheless, it had to be carried out," because it "is an outstanding 'no alternative' deal." The paper believes that "Israel, as a democratic country, is not entitled to abandon the citizen Tannenbaum to the mercies of Hizballah murderers and cannot remain indifferent to the pain of the families of the murdered soldiers. Refusing to implement the exchange was never even considered; the bargaining was merely over the price, and the price that was determined in the end is not unreasonably high."

Yediot's editors continue: "[Senior Hizbollah official Sheikh Abdel Karim] Obeid and [Lebanese guerilla fighter Mustafa] Dirani should have been returned to Lebanon long ago, after it became clear that their abductions did not further the search for Ron Arad, and that their being in an Israeli prison was only liable to prod Hizballah into kidnapping Israelis as hostages (as it, in fact, did)." The paper speculates that whatever gains Hizballah derives from the deal in the Lebanese sphere will be short-lived due to the organization's steadily eroding image as a liability to Lebanon's development and progress. The editors conclude: "The exchange deal with Hizballah strengthens one of Israel's bitterest enemies in the world and endangers its deterrent ability. Thus from a security point-of-view; but from a moral point of-view, no Israeli government could and would make a decision other than that which the Sharon government made; yes to the deal, with all the reservations. Not because it is the correct deal, but because rejecting it was out of the question."


Reaching a Painful Deal

Under the exchange agreement, Israel will free approximately 400 Palestinian and 20 Lebanese prisoners and repatriate the bodies of dozens of Lebanese soldiers, in return for the remains of three Israeli soldiers and the release of kidnapped Israeli businessman Elhanan Tennenbaum. "Those with blood on their hands will not be released," the cabinet said in a prepared statement. According to government ministers adopting the deal was "one of Israel's most difficult decisions ever."

Included in the deal is Israel's promise to free Dirani, the very same man who is believed to have held Arad right after his capture and to have tortured him. By giving up Dirani, Israel loses one of its most useful bargaining chips for information on Arad—or even his release. "Imagine that Arad is in jail in Iran, Lebanon, or somewhere else," stated Minister Uzi Landau, who opposed the deal. "One shudders at the thought of a despicable scene where Dirani goes to visit him in jail and tells him: 'I was released, but they forgot you.' "

Israelis felt sad, trapped in a never-ending cycle of difficult decisions forced onto them. There had been similar deals in the past, but this one raised the issue of Ron Arad, who was left out in the cold. The deal had been under negotiation for months, with Germany serving as the mediator. It has divided Israel, and the majority of Israelis believe that Arad has been abandoned for good, even left to die.

Israel's chief of General Staff, Lt.-Gen. Moshe Ya'alon, however, believes that the chances of freeing Arad would actually improve now, since the exchange puts the issue back in the international arena. Avraham Tirosh of Tel Aviv's centrist Ma'ariv agreed (Nov. 7, 2003): "Paradoxically, the case of Ron Arad provides the greatest justification for implementing the prisoner exchange…. One day, [Arad] suddenly vanished from the face of the earth…. [T]his could happen to Tennenbaum if he is abandoned to the animals of Hizbollah."

On Nov. 12, Ze'ev Shiff summed up the mood that prevailed in Israel after details of the deal were settled upon, in Ha'aretz: "Israel fell into the trap of Hizbollah's psychological warfare. Hizbollah taught us a lesson. It managed to get Israelis quarreling with each other over the prisoner affair.... Handing over Palestinian prisoners to Hizbollah once again raises the question of why Israel couldn't have done the same for the Mahmoud Abbas government....The bottom line is that, in the field of psychological warfare, Hizbollah beat Israel."
Dan Margalit, writing in Ma'ariv (Nov. 7), also found harsh words: "For better or for worse, we are a nation of bleeding-heart liberal softies."


Trapped in the "Tennenbaum Dilemma"

For days, the Israeli media argued over the lopsidedness of the deal, pondering why no price for Israel was too high. Other commentators asserted that by accepting Hizbollah's demands, Israel was demonstrating weakness and encouraged future abductions. The deal pitted the Tennenbaum family against the Arad family, and politicians were caught in the "Tennenbaum Dilemma": Whose grief weighs more? "The public must immediately ask forgiveness from the prisoners' families for forcing them to come out and publicly fight each other," demanded an editorial in Yediot Aharonot (Nov. 10). Amir Oren, writing in Tel Aviv's liberal Ha'aretz (Nov. 10), put it more bluntly: "In choosing 'Tennenbaum or Arad,' Israel must act like a combat medic who is obligated to decide which wounded man to treat first."

Nevertheless, Caroline Glick, writing for the conservative English-language Jerusalem Post (Nov. 7), strongly opposed striking any deals with terrorist organizations. "If Israel plays ball with a group of kidnappers, then that means that kidnapping is a good idea and should be used again and again…If [Tennenbaum's] release costs Israel 400 terrorists, how much will Israel agree to pay to secure the release of an Israeli family abducted while on safari in Africa, or a honeymooning couple kidnapped while trekking through South America?… In exchange for the peace of mind of four families…all of us will be placed in jeopardy." To that, Ben Caspit, writing for Ma'ariv (Nov. 7) added dryly: "[Hizbollah leader] Hassan Nasrallah surely enjoys this moment…. Suicide bombings will become a thing of the past…. Now, thanks to Nasrallah, let's all move on to the era of terrorism through abductions." The editors of Ha'aretz agreed (Nov. 9): "[The deal] would cast Israel in the role of a state that surrenders to threatening dictates."

Why is there always such a stark difference in what Israel is willing to give and what Arabs agree to in return? asked Amos Gilboa in Ma'ariv (Nov. 10). "Why is this difference so easily accepted by the world and by us as something perfectly natural?…. Perhaps the answer to that is that, overall, we have been defeated by the rules that terrorism has unleashed in the world." Realities have changed. "The once universal joy at releasing our captives has been lost," lamented Yigal Sarna in Yediot Aharonot (Nov. 7). "The violence, anger, and rifts have torn the delicate fabric of Israeli society…. Now, even this little miracle has lost its glamour. The affair has turned into a struggle between families, ministers, hordes of lobbyists, attorneys, public relation experts, demonstrators, and manifesto signers." Sarna continued to attack Sharon openly, holding him personally responsible for a deal gone bad. "The man opposed to any dialogue or negotiations with people with blood on their hands," Sarna charged, "is the same person who has now decided that while we won't talk to the Palestinians about our lives, we'll talk to Hizbollah about our dead."


"Injustice, Betrayal and Botched Policy"

If anything, the public debate over the deal has sparked renewed talk of whether Arad is alive or not. According to a member of the government-appointed "Winograd Committee," which reviewed intelligence information related to the fate of Arad and presented its findings in August, "There is no conclusive evidence to support the thesis that Arad is dead, thus it must be concluded that he is alive." Not for long, however, charged Israel's settler outlet Arutz Sheva (Nov. 11), quoting Eli Landau, the chairman of Israel Electronic Company and a good friend of Ariel Sharon: "The fact that Sharon is willing to make this exchange without including Arad in it is sure proof that he feels Arad is no longer alive."

Six months later, the issue was still weighed in the Hebrew press.
An editorial in Ha'aretz summarized on April 28, 2004: "Three months have passed since the first stage of the prisoner exchange deal with Hezbollah was carried out. Israel paid a steep price for this first phase: the release of Lebanese prisoners who belonged to the Hezbollah terror organization, at least one of whom—Sheikh Mustafa Dirani—was involved in the capture and maltreatment of missing Israel Air Force navigator Ron Arad. Israel...thus strengthened Hezbollah's prestige and influence as a presence in the entire region, and not just in internal Lebanon politics.... Clearly, the non-consummation of the second phase of the deal aggravates doubts as to why it was brokered in the first place. Three months later, with the promised continuation nowhere in sight, the deal still stirs feelings of injustice, betrayal, and botched policy among friends and family of Ron Arad—and not only among them."


For further reading:

The Story of Ron Arad

Israelis Held by Hizbollah
compiled by the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Framework Principles for the Agreement to Release Israeli Prisoners and Hostages Held in Lebanon
adopted by the Sharon cabinet on Nov. 9, 2003.

Home Page > Articles in English > Prisoner Exchange