Threatens to derail efforts to establish Palestinian State

BY DEBKAfile 11 April 2002

"The Lebanese Hizballah’s Hassan Nasrallah counted on the shock effect of his surprise offer on April 11 - to negotiate the return of the Israeli Elhanan Tannenboim abducted in October 2000 - to manipulate a number of parties round to dealing with him directly.
Most immediately, his offer was a last-minute try to deny Israel forces a hard-won victory in the epic Jenin battle and rescue the 100-150 hard-core Palestinian Jihad Islami terrorists still battling them from the last corner of the Jenin camp.

The Nasrallah plan is to send them to Lebanon. If he If he can achieve this goal, Nasrallah will also have cracked open the door for Arafat to escape his virtual imprisonment in Ramallah and may even force Washington into a dialogue with the extremist group it has officially designated a terrorist organization.

First an international mediation board would be established to handle the kidnapped Israeli’s handover to Israel and guarantee the safety and release of the besieged Palestinians.

Israel has yet to respond to the offer. The Hizballah’s secretary general has a well-earned reputation as a prize demagogue, manipulator and psychological blackmailer. Israel will certainly demand proofs that Tannenboim is alive and in Hizballah’s hands. A UN or Red Cross mediator will have to see him in the flesh in the next 12 hours – or at the least a photo or video produced showing him holding up a Lebanese newspaper dated April 11.

If Nasrallah can arrange this, he will have won round one of his master plan: robbing Israel of victory in the toughest battle of its counter-terror offensive, a confrontation whose importance for the Palestinians and radical Muslim world equals that of the crucial battle for Kandahar in Afghanistan.

Although US Marines and ground forces have massed in Kandahar, seven months after landing the country, they still control only the city’s international airport. These forces have refrained from entering the town for fear of heavy US casualties. But the Israeli army is paying the price, and a heavy one, for bearding the terrorists in their strongholds. Its soldiers are braving the deathtrap alleyways of the Nablus and Jenin casbahs and refugee camps, engaging in close combat with Muslim extremists and advancing through areas bristling with thousands of explosive devices and booby-traps.

Nasrallah, Arafat, Osama bin Laden and every other Muslim leader know that an Israeli victory in Jenin would shatter the myth of the invincible warrior for Islam. The Hizballah has stepped in to avert militant Islam’s first real major defeat in the global war against terrorism.

For the Israeli soldier, this battle has to be won, because it is being fought against an enemy that threatens his home, family and country. Elite fighters and commanders have therefore flocked to the flag and are being sacrificed. The United States understands this important point, and the IDF’s imperative need to fight on in the Jenin camp and Nablus casbah all the way to victory. In some ways, the fall of Jenin will hasten the fall of Kandahar.
Nasrallah’s battle plan has a second part: After two weeks of almost daily cross-border rocket and mortar attacks into northern Israel, he means to head off an Israeli air or ground counter-offensive against his own Hizballah and Syrian forces in Lebanon.

His gambit is also designed to force Israel to lift its siege of Arafat.

By linking the Palestinian issue with Hizballah’s fight against Israel, Nasrallah is attempting the grab the leading role of the al-Aqsa campaign launched by Arafat. He is also forcing the United States to focus its attention on himself at the very moment that US secretary of state Colin Powell arrives for ceasefire talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders Friday and Saturday, April 11 and 12. Powell will find that Nasrallah is part of the problem and therefore will have to be engaged too – if not directly, then through the good offices of European diplomats who always stand ready for this role.

Once that happens, the Hizballah leader can also claim a diplomatic victory, without making the slightest effort to prove that Tannenboim is alive or that his group has charge of him. It will be enough if Israel says it is willing to negotiate his release. An answer one way or another is due from Jerusalem very soon. Nasrallah will then demand as a pre-condition a truce in Jenin. The focus of US, Israeli and Palestinian exchanges will at that point swing round to the offer Hizballah has placed on the table and ways to hold off an Israeli operation in Lebanon – and away from the bilateral Palestinian-Israeli issue of withdrawal versus the cessation of terror.

And that will not be all. Nasrallah made his move - not only on his own behalf, but as part of the conjoined military collaboration between two members of the US president’s “axis of evil”: Iran and Iraq. US vice president Dick Cheney telephoned Syrian president Bashar Assad early this week in a bid to persuade him make the Hizballah desist from its daily attacks against Israeli forces and towns. But several hours earlier, DEBKAfile ’s military sources report, Assad received Iraqi vice president Taha Yassin Ramadan at his Damascus palace to discuss military coordination in the event of a Middle East war erupting and the invocation the secret military pacts that Syria and Iraq signed last summer. These pacts provide for Syrian air force units, if their bases are attacked, to operate out of Iraqi air bases - and vice versa.

Assad’s next secret visitor this week was Nasrallah.

He arrived armed with an Iranian mandate to petition the Syrian leader for permission to up the ante in his assault on Israel, namely to fire heavy 120 mm artillery, various types of Katyusha rockets and eventually short-range Iranian surface-to-surface missiles, instead of the anti-tank missiles and mortars fielded till now.

The Hizballah leader also requested permission to shoot missiles from Lebanon at Israeli targets on the Israeli side of the Golan Heights, which Syria lost in the 1967 war. Assad, who told Cheney he had no influence over the Hizballah, granted its leader both requests.

Nasrallah was therefore able to break a long-standing rule. Never before has territory claimed by Syria come under missile attack from Lebanon. Washington and Israel can hardly complain if Hizballah attacks the Golan with permission from Damascus.

What the Hizballah leader has achieved with a single timely stroke is to hijack the moderate Arab leaders’ attempts to rescue Arafat and the Palestinians and seize the initiative on behalf of the extremist Muslim camp - Iran, Iraq, Syria and the Hizballah. This places extra onus on the moderates to harden their position – the very opposite that Powell wants to achieve. The Lebanese group’s heavy artillery that began firing into the Golan Heights for the first time Monday, April 8, was a signal to the United States, the Europeans and Israel’s left-wing leaders, of the way the Middle East crisis was heading, as a result of their efforts to salvage the Arafat regime.

Unless Nasrallah is firmly rebuffed, the would-be international ceasefire brokers will soon find themselves at the wrong address in their efforts to achieve a Middle East breakthrough.

On the other hand, his proposition offers the first real chance of extracting a sign that the missing Tannenboim is alive – though not because the Hizballah holds him. As DEBKAfile has reported in the past, Tannenboim is in the hands of the Shiite terrorist Imad Mughniyeh and probably not in Lebanon at all. At the same time, if Nasrallah is acting on behalf of Mughniyeh’s masters in Tehran, a ray of light may be available at last on the abducted man’s fate."