At first glance, last Thursday’s prisoner exchange between Israel and Hezbollah is an unconscionably bad deal for the Jewish State. In exchange for the release of a single citizen and the bodies of three soldiers, Israel released 401 Palestinian prisoners, 29 prisoners from other Arab states and the bodies of 59 dead Lebanese fighters. The deal is even more curious given that it cuts directly against the Israeli-adopted American policy of refusing to negotiate with groups named as “terrorist organizations” and leaders with “blood on their hands.” Israel has stayed the course on the question of Palestine, eschewing diplomacy for aggressive unilateral action that has included military raids, house demolitions and construction of a separation wall inside the internationally recognized borders of the Palestinian territories. Yet Hezbollah remains as recalcitrant as ever; in announcing the exchange, its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, it pledged to continue capturing Israelis inside Lebanon. Could Hezbollah really have extorted, and in so public a fashion, the Goliath of the Middle East?
No. Israel readily gave Hezbollah a political victory because it dealt a serious blow to the Palestinian Authority. It is but the latest proof of what Israel really fears: not a military defeat at the hands of the Arabs, but a legitimate Palestinian political movement working toward a state.
Israel’s strategy is premised on a fundamental truth of the modern Arab world – that a century marked by defeat, colonialism and more defeat has produced leadership resigned to its fate, acquiescence to Israel and the West, and populations eager to swarm toward any resistance to it. This dynamic is labeled the Arab psychology of defeat, and Israel is exploiting it masterfully – rewarding militancy while it stonewalls diplomacy and pitting a desperate people against a leadership it has crippled, using an enemy as its hired gun.
The prisoner exchange drives the loyalty of 401 Palestinian families into the hands of Hezbollah. It adds to the standing of an organization already heralded in the Arab world for forcing the Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000 – a decision, from the Israeli perspective, motivated more by economics than by casualties. Unlike the PA’s diplomatic efforts, Hezbollah’s successes have come irrespective of hard-line administrations in the United States and Israel, and without compromises in its policy. Yes, Hezbollah is truly at war with the Jewish State, but given Israel’s military strength, its efforts amount to little more than a nuisance. In other words, a stronger Hezbollah is a tolerable side effect of a policy designed to de-legitimize the PA and foreclose a diplomatic solution to a question Israel would prefer to solve unilaterally.
Israel cites the Bush doctrine – that legitimate states are juxtaposed against, reject and defeat terrorist groups – to justify its intransigence toward the PA. It declared President Yasir Arafat a terrorist and, with American support, refused to negotiate with the PA until it appointed a prime minister. The PA complied, appointing Mahmoud Abbas, a career diplomat who was integral in drafting the 1993 Oslo Agreement but was little known to the Palestinian public. At the Aqaba Summit in June 2003 – in an address to President Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Sharon – Abbas spoke of ending the intifada (uprising) and terrorism, while conspicuously failing to mention the most divisive Palestinian demands in the recurrent peace process – the right of return to the homes they fled in 1948 in what is now Israel, and establishment of the Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem.
Israel was fully cognizant of what Abbas risked in making such drastic concessions and what reciprocal measures it could offer him to take to the Palestinians as the product of good-faith diplomacy. Namely, they offered a real reversal in Israel’s settlement policy: tangible measures to improve the daily lives of Palestinians in the West Bank and especially Gaza (where the PA now has a negligible presence) and of course a prisoner release. But Israel gave him nothing, and Abbas’ government was dead in less than three months.
By circumventing the legitimate Palestinian government in negotiating the fate of Palestinian prisoners, Israel admits that its interests are better served by the cycle of terrorist acts and military reprisals. Indeed, the three-year Palestinian uprising has delivered to the Israeli right wing what it has long sought: aggrandizement, in the form of a security wall usurping land from the Palestinian territories. Israel wants a PA sufficiently irrelevant in the everyday lives of the Palestinians to be a capable negotiating partner. Yet it must keep the PA sufficiently visible to the West as the emblem of Palestinian terrorism. Hezbollah has unwittingly volunteered for both jobs, freeing Israel to solve the Palestinian question by its preferred means: the tank, the bulldozer and the wall.
-The writer is a GW alumnus.