In this insightful video op-ed Daniel Levy, the director of New America’s Middle East Initiative, provides a glimpse into the reasons why today’s prisoner exchange was important for both Israel and Lebanon.
As Daniel argues, this exchange can be hard to understand in the West. Why would Israel give up a hated terrorist, a cold-blooded murderer, in return for the dead bodies of kidnapped soldiers Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, among other Israeli war dead from the 2006 Lebanon war? And what does Israel gain from negotiating with terrorist groups like Hezbollah?
First of all, Hezbollah’s gains from this exchange should not be exaggerated. Hezbollah has built its reputation in Lebanon over the last 26 years, not only as a resistance organization but also as a charity organization that provides education, medical care and other basic services the Lebanese government cannot. The prisoner exchange may mark a small symbolic victory for them, but nothing of any more importance. It certainly will do little to increase the legitimacy that they have already gained with the Lebanese people.
Yet Levy is right in saying that Hezbollah is still a presence that must be dealt with. They are a part of Lebanon’s government, and the level of power they have acquired over the years make them a key player in Lebanese politics, and their influence cannot be underestimate or ignored.
As for the released terrorist, Samir Quntar, he remains a murderer. But his moment in history has passed.
Quntar was a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a group that, while still active, was supplanted long ago by the PLO (now the Palestinian Authority) and Hamas. He is not a member of Hezbollah, and poses little threat to Israel now that he is freed. His power was as a symbol, a martyr condemned in perpetuity to Israel’s prison system. Freed from his bonds, he loses his power to captivate. The hero’s welcome he received today is, as Daniel points out, a chance for the Lebanese to vent their very real anger and frustration at the destruction wrought by the war and the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon that ended in 2000. But Samir Quntar the man will most likely fade away.
This leaves, of course, Israel. Israel’s gains, if they can be called that, are bittersweet and ephemeral. The Goldwasser and Regev families will never see their sons again. But as Levy points out, this exchange shows, if nothing else, the solidarity of the Israeli people, and their commitment, above everything else, to bring all of Israel’s sons home. It also gives them the closure they needed, to be able to bury their sons and go back to their lives.
More than that, though, the exchange provides a chance for both Israel and Lebanon to seal this chapter of their histories, and move beyond it. The last Lebanese prisoners in Israel were released, and both Israeli and Lebanese families received the bodies of sons killed on the battlefield. This move will not bring peace, far from it. But settling issues like these are the only way that both sides can eventually come to an understanding, and move away from the animosity and fear that serve as stumbling blocks for peace negotiations.
For more on the prisoner exchange and the wider conflict between Israel and Lebanon, tune in to Daniel Levy on NewsHour with Jim Lehrer tonight.
— Andrew Lebovich
The transcript and video of Daniel Levy’s discussion on NewsHour with Jim Lehrer with Middle East expert Professor Rami Khouri of the American University of Beirut can be found here.