AUS DEM SPIEGEL
Ausgabe 43/2007

Breakthrough Exchange German Spy Brokered Deal between Israel and Hezbollah

Arch-enemies Israel and Hezbollah came together last week for a landmark prisoner exchange that has raised hopes that two Israeli soldiers captured in July 2006 may be released. The deal was brokered by a German intelligence officer known as "Mr. Hezbollah."

By and


Mourners attend the funeral of Gabriel Dawit in the southern Israeli city of Beersheba on Oct. 17, 2007. Israel and Hezbollah exchanged the remains of Dawit, an Ethiopian Jew who had immigrated to Israel, for a captive Hezbollah fighter and the bodies of two comrades in a UN-brokered deal last Monday.
REUTERS

Mourners attend the funeral of Gabriel Dawit in the southern Israeli city of Beersheba on Oct. 17, 2007. Israel and Hezbollah exchanged the remains of Dawit, an Ethiopian Jew who had immigrated to Israel, for a captive Hezbollah fighter and the bodies of two comrades in a UN-brokered deal last Monday.

These days, there aren’t many people Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert can trust completely. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni demanded Olmert's resignation after the disastrous war against Hezbollah in Lebanon, and Olmert's coalition is on the verge of collapse because of a few concessions granted to the Palestinians. Some members of his party are already talking about the “post-Olmert era.”

But one man remains loyal to the 62-year-old leader. His name is Ofer Dekel and he is the former deputy chief of Israel’s domestic intelligence agency, Shin Bet. Olmert met the now 56-year-old in the mid-1990s, while Olmert was the mayor of Jerusalem. Back then the two met in the mornings to go jogging. But since Olmert became prime minister, his security detail no longer allows him to run outside. Instead, the two now break a sweat on treadmills that Olmert had installed in a room in his office.

Dekel is more than a good friend; he also holds the key to Olmert’s political survival. After the war in Lebanon last year, Olmert put Dekel in charge of efforts to free the soldiers Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, who were abducted by the Lebanon-based, Islamic militant group Hezbollah in an incident that sparked the 2006 Lebanon War. Olmert had declared the safe return home of the army reservists as one of the goals of the bungled military campaign, but the nation is still waiting for him to make good on his promise.

Dekel was finally able to tell his friend of the first signs of progress last Monday: Jerusalem received the body of an Ethiopian Jew and a letter from the Israeli pilot Ron Arad -- missing for over 20 years -- from the radical Shiite militia. In return, the Israelis gave back the remains of two Hezbollah fighters and released a Lebanese prisoner.

The exchange is a possible new beginning between the two sworn enemies. For the first time since the end of last summer's war, there is movement on one of the key fronts of the Middle East conflict. The solution of the prisoner problem is considered a precondition for any further de-escalation that might eventually lead to a peace treaty between Israel and Lebanon.

Both sides praised the deal as soon as it was concluded. Shiite militia leader Hassan Nasrallah spoke of having "advanced positively" in the negotiations between Israel and Hezbollah, while Olmert commended the “balanced” nature of the exchange.

It’s a measure of modest success that both sides could celebrate as a victory. Olmert, under immense domestic political pressure, was able to present himself to the public as an effective negotiator. And Nasrallah could demonstrate his goodwill to the world, helping Hezbollah avoid the international isolation threatened by UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which was intended to resolve the Israel-Lebanon conflict. The deal is also important for the United Nations, proving as it does that the world body is still able to effectively mediate international crises. The episode is even garnering kudos for Germany’s BND foreign intelligence agency, as it was one of Berlin’s spooks who was responsible for piecing the deal together.

Preparations for the exchange were top secret. The BND intelligence officer first flew to Nasrallah’s headquarters in Beirut. Whoever visits the Shiite leader is subject to a strip search before handing over mobile phones and going through a metal detector. The German knows the procedure; he made previous visits to help set up the last large prisoner exchange with Israel in 2004.

A United Nations vehicle waits to cross the northern Israeli border with Lebanon on Oct. 15 ahead of the exchange deal between Israel and Lebanon.
AFP

A United Nations vehicle waits to cross the northern Israeli border with Lebanon on Oct. 15 ahead of the exchange deal between Israel and Lebanon.

The agent, who comes from Berlin and is an expert in Arab culture, is known in the intelligence community as “Mr. Hezbollah.” He was the UN’s first choice for the mediator role. He was the BND’s man in Beirut, knows the finer points of Syrian politics, and speaks fluent Arabic. He has shuttled between Tel Aviv, Berlin, New York and Beirut ever since meeting former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan in September 2006.

Behind the scenes, Nasrallah was pulling the strings for the exchange, which is hoped to be the overture to the potential “big event,” as Nasrallah refers to the possible return of the two Israeli soldiers. The practical details were sorted out by the BND officer with the Shiite sheikh’s negotiator Hajj Wafik. But since it was uncertain whether Nasrallah would change his mind at the last minute, the agent from Berlin personally accompanied the convoy of cars all the way to the Lebanese-Israeli border.

The Hezbollah men brought the corpse of Gabriel Dawit, an Ethiopian Jew who had immigrated to Israel and who had drowned near Haifa in 2005. The circumstances of Dawit's death are unclear. The Israeli government had up till now presumed he had died in a swimming accident or had committed suicide. But it’s more likely he fell into the hands of Hezbollah while engaging in smuggling.

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