Nothing to Talk About
By David Ignatius
Tuesday, October 7, 2003; Page A25
BEIRUT -- Is there any way to stop the horrifying dance of death between Israel and its enemies? Are there terms under which Islamic militants might agree to halt their suicide bombings?
I put these questions last week to Hasan Nasrallah, the head of the Lebanese Shiite militia known as Hezbollah, in an interview at his heavily guarded offices here. It was a few days before the latest hemorrhage of violence, in which a Palestinian woman blew herself up inside a Haifa restaurant Saturday, killing 19 and wounding 55.
"I can't imagine a situation, based on the nature of the Israeli project and the nature of the Israeli leaders, where the Palestinians would agree to lay down arms," Nasrallah answered. A decade ago, at the time of the Madrid conference and the Oslo accords, he continued, "there was a philosophical debate" about the possibility of a peace settlement. But it is over.
"The road of negotiation did not solve the Palestinian problem," Nasrallah said. "If you have today widespread support [among Palestinians] for Hamas and Islamic Jihad, this is due to the failure of the political option."
That bleak answer might be expected from the militant leader of what the United States classifies as a terrorist organization. But I suspect many Israelis would probably give a similarly pessimistic response. Their hopes for peace were also destroyed with the failure of Madrid and Oslo.
The Hezbollah leader doesn't give many interviews, but he agreed to talk last week for about 90 minutes. Even by Middle East standards, his security is very tight. He works inside a gated enclave in this city's southern suburbs. Before the guards let you into his headquarters, they examine not just your tape recorder and cell phone but your wedding ring, ballpoint pen and credit cards.
I found Nasrallah smart, tough, inflexible on key issues -- and totally in control of his movement. For his followers, he is at once a military and religious leader. That makes him a dangerous adversary for Israel, but also -- if the stars ever shift in alignment -- a credible partner at the negotiating table.
We spent much of the interview, in fact, discussing the indirect talks he has been holding with Israel over an exchange of prisoners. Nasrallah said that, working through a German mediator, he had concluded a tentative deal that would trade 400 Palestinians and 50 to 60 other Arabs for a small number of Israeli captives.
"This is something that is legitimate," Nasrallah said of the prisoner-swap negotiations. He said that "even the most horrible enemies, throughout history" have held such talks. But he noted recent Israeli press reports that have criticized Prime Minister Ariel Sharon for bargaining with Hezbollah and said he wasn't sure Sharon would follow through on the tentative agreement.
A measure of Nasrallah's cunning is that he mounted an intelligence operation to lure an Israeli named Elhanhan Tannenbaum to Lebanon, where he became a bargaining chip in the prisoner negotiations. "Israel has a major problem in its inability to penetrate Hezbollah at a security level," Nasrallah said. So in October 2000, he explained, Hezbollah dangled the possibility that Tannenbaum could recruit a senior Hezbollah operative if he came to Lebanon.
"The prey was very important, and the hunter fell into the trap," Nasrallah said. He described Tannenbaum as a colonel in the Israeli intelligence service. Israel describes Tannenbaum only as a businessman but has refused to discuss his case. One chilling reason why Nasrallah has credibility with his followers is that his own son died in a suicide attack on Israeli soldiers in South Lebanon in 1997.
"We didn't send our children to London or Paris to university, but to fight alongside other Lebanese," Nasrallah told me. His voice seemed animated by pride, rather than grief, over his son's death.
Nasrallah said that in its successful campaign to drive Israel from South Lebanon, Hezbollah attacked Israeli soldiers rather than civilians, and that his group doesn't target children or the elderly. But he wouldn't criticize the Palestinian groups that use such tactics, arguing that they were defending themselves against Israeli aggression. Like most discussions of terrorism I've had in the Arab world, it was a formulaic exchange in which the question and answer seemed to come from different moral universes.
One of America's gifts to the world is the innocence of our culture -- and our belief that rational people can solve any problem. That sense of optimism sustained 30 years of would-be Middle East peacemakers, from Nixon to Carter to Reagan to Bush to Clinton. But amid the charred ruins of yet another suicide bombing it, it is difficult even for a blinkered optimist to see any easy path away from the bloodshed. Nasrallah might someday be an important negotiating partner for Israel, if he believed there was anything to talk about.
© 2003 The Washington Post Company