Israel prefers the limited threat posed by Hizbollah to giving up territory.
Israel's message in the prisoner exchange is clear: force works
Right after the end of the Israeli war on Lebanon in 2006, the Hizbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah, renewed his pledge to liberate Samir Quntar, the longest-serving Israeli prisoner in Israel.
He kept his promise this week. Nasrallah has succeeded in securing the release of Quntar and other prisoners through indirect negotiations with Israel. In a few days, Hizbollah will celebrate the return of Quntar in a ceremony that the Arab world will be watching - and cheering.
By any standard, the return of Quntar to his country after 29 years in Israeli prisons is a significant achievement for Hizbollah. On one level, it is a vindication of the party and its policies. It is also a welcome step that should, theoretically, reduce tension between Lebanon and Israel. But on another, it is a hard slap on the face to moderate Arabs who have advocated peace with Israel.
Consider this. Jordan signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1994. Its approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict has been praised by Israel, America and Europe as a model to follow in the pursuit of peace. But it took Jordan more than 20 years to secure the release of some of its prisoners in Israel. And when Israel finally agreed to free the longest-serving Jordanian prisoner, it did so under terms embarrassing to the Jordanian government. Sultan Ajlouni and other prisoners were released only on condition that they serve another 18 months in prison in Jordan.
People will compare the two cases and draw conclusions from the Israeli response to efforts to release the Lebanese and Jordanian prisoners. The country that signed a peace treaty was shunned by Israel and given an embarrassing deal. The party that is still at war with it is enabled to declare victory in having forced the release of its prisoners on its terms.
The inevitable conclusion is that Israel only responds to force. Evidence to support this perception abounds. Such evidence is not restricted to the Jordanian and Lebanese examples. Similar Israeli practices have weakened the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas. For years, Abbas has been trying to achieve progress in talks with the Israelis. But he came out empty handed on every front, including efforts to free Palestinian prisoners. This Israeli intransigence in dealing with Abbas partly led to the crushing defeat he and his Fatah party suffered to Hamas in parliamentary elections in 2006.
Now, Israel humiliates Abbas once again by releasing Palestinian prisoners to Hizbollah, as if recognising its sworn enemy as a cross-border Arab force that can speak for the Palestinians. The problem is not with the humiliation of Abbas and the other leaders committed to a peaceful resolution of the Arab Israeli conflict; it is with the devastating impact of Israeli policies on moderate forces in the region. Israel continues to discredit moderation as peace negotiations prove futile, while it is empowering radical ideologies that see war as the only path to restoring Arab rights and ending the Israeli occupation of Arab lands.
Is Israel so stupid not to appreciate the implications of its policies? Definitely not. Israel seems to know exactly the consequences of its policies. It is buying the time necessary to change facts on the ground with a view to making the establishment of a viable Palestinian state a geographical impossibility.
To realise this objective, Israel is working on two tracks. The first is ensuring that the peace process does not go beyond rhetoric and achieves no results. This serves its purpose of not making any real compromises while appearing committed to its announced objective of reaching a negotiated settlement with the Arabs. The second is keeping the radical threat alive, but under check, to use it as an excuse not to move ahead with peace and to cover its manipulation of geographic and demographic realities.
Faced with the choices of relinquishing the occupied territories for a lasting peace or living with the threat of Hamas and Hizbollah as a price for keeping these territories, Israel is obviously opting for the latter. In the final analysis, Israeli policies indicate that Israel prefers risking the limited threat of violence posed by Hizbollah and Hamas to giving up territory to create a lasting peace with its neighbours.
Israel has consistently worked to weaken its partners in peace talks. It rejected a historic Arab initiative offering full peace and normalisation with all Arab states in return for ending the occupation and the establishment of a Palestinian state on the basis of the internationally endorsed two-state solution.
This short-sighted policy, however, will come back to haunt Israel. The failure to resolve the Arab Israeli conflict continues, among other factors, to radicalise the region. Israel might believe it can control the danger Hizbollah represents. And it certainly can. But it will definitely suffer if radicals take over the region.
Already Hizbollah is selling the prisoner exchange deal as a proof of the soundness of its position. On Saturday, when he addresses a celebration to mark the second anniversary of "the divine victory" of the July 2006 war, Nasrallah will further emphasise this point. Force is the only way to coerce Israel to respect Arab rights, he is expected to say. Thousands will nod in agreement: Nasrallah and his policies delivered the release of prisoners; moderate Arabs delivered nothing, not the promised end of occupation, not even the release of prisoners.
Ayman Safadi is a former editor of Alghad in Jordan and a commentator on Middle Eastern affairs