Germany has begun playing an active role in pursuing a diplomatic solution to the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah. It's not the first time German diplomats have gotten involved in the region and this conflict.
German officials have helped with prisoner exchanges several times
Four years after Israel's 1982 march over its northern border, an Israeli "Phantom" bomber ran into serious trouble in the skies over southern Lebanon. The plane's crew had to eject and in a scene worthy of a Hollywood action film, Israeli troops managed to rescue the pilot. But the navigator, Ron Arad, could not be found.
For 20 years rumors have circulated that Arad was handed over to Iran by Shiite militias. While Iranian exile groups claimed to have traced him to various Iranian prisons, the case was never actually solved.
Ron Arad, Israeli airman shot down over Lebanon in 1986 and captured by Lebanese guerrillas
However, the Arad case was one of Germany's first opportunities to intervene diplomatically in the conflict. The then-coordinator of secret services in the chancellery, Bernd Schmidbauer, was able to benefit from what might have otherwise caused resentment in Israel: good relations with Tehran and the secret services there. On Jerusalem's request, he began to look into the case.
While no breakthrough was forthcoming, Schmidbauer did manage to build positive relations with all the affected parties. His greatest coup was the agreement he helped seal in 1996. It involved the transfer of the remains of two Israeli soldiers who had been killed in Lebanon 10 years earlier and the release of several members of the Israel-backed South Lebanon Army. In exchange, Israel handed over the bodies of 123 Hezbollah fighters and released 45 Lebanese prisoners.
Laying the foundation
The case set the foundation for German mediation between Israel and Lebanon, or more precisely, between Israel and Hezbollah. Political mediation between the opposing sides, especially between Israel and the Palestinians, would have been beyond German diplomacy's abilities. But secret negotiations with technical goals, such as the exchange of prisoners, have proven to be a German specialty.
The contacts German diplomats were able to establish also proved useful in 1992 with the release of two German aid workers, who had been held prisoner by a south Lebanese family clan for almost three years. Seven years later, however, mediation efforts failed. Negotiators in 1999 tried to secure the release of five Hezbollah fighters by Israel and have them transferred to Germany in exchange for information about the whereabouts of the missing navigator Arad.
The next opportunity came about in November 2003. With a one-vote majority, the Israeli government decided it was ready to release about 400 Palestinian and Lebanese prisoners. In return, Israel wanted the remains of three soldiers and the release of a (dubious) businessman, who was in Hezbollah captivity.
Among the Lebanese prisoners who were granted their freedom were Mustafa Dirani and Sheikh Abdel Karim Obeid. Dirani is thought to be responsible for the capture and disappearance of Ron Arad. Obeid was a respected Shiite religious figure. Both had been targeted for capture by Israel in the hope of one day exchanging them for Arad. But without officially admitting it, Jerusalem had apparently given up this aim and voted for their release.
The exchange was made possible in 2004 by Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who then headed the German chancellery, and especially by Ernst Uhrlau, who was the coordinator of secret services at the time. Now Uhrlau is the director of Germany's foreign intelligence service, the BND, and Steinmeier sits in the foreign minister's chair. Both are versed in the business of prisoner exchange, but whether or not they can now follow up on their earlier successes remains to be seen. In times of open hostilities, such prisoners exchanges are much more difficult then they are in times of a truce, however shaky. Of course, it goes without saying that a strict silence is maintained about real and possible contacts.
Nice words, little progress
Foreign Minister Steinmeier's predecessor, Joschka Fischer, also ended his term in office with an experienced hand in Middle East diplomacy, but with very different results. Fischer visited the Middle East more often than any other of the world's crisis regions and exhorted both Israelis and Palestinians to make steps toward peace. Both sides tended to thank Fischer heartily for his efforts whenever he visited, but then returned to their conflict as soon as his back was turned. Despite that, Fischer did manage to put Germany in the position to be able to talk to Israelis, Palestinians and even Hezbollah without raising suspicions on all the other sides.
But there is a long road between keeping various parties calm and being an active and successful mediator. It is also one which is littered with many a failed attempt.