In the run-up to the prisoner exchange of October 2011, German mediation was instrumental in negotiations between Israel and one of its non-state adversaries. It was not the first instance of such mediation, and there is evidence that the deal which led to the release of Gilad Shalit and 1027 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails will not be the last one. Israel is surprisingly willing to compromise when it comes to its missing soldiers and their remains. Consequently, prisoner swaps have served as an invitation to Hizbullah and Hamas to kidnap Israelis on a regular basis. This article focuses on why Germany – with its traditionally cautious policy towards the Israeli-Arab conflict – has become the regular mediator in these cases and how the German role developed between the first swap in 1996 and the fourth in 2011.
Everything began back in 1992 or 1993, when then Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin asked his German counterpart, Chancellor Helmut Kohl, for help in determining the fate, as well as securing the possible release, of the Israeli air force navigator Ron Arad. He had been missing since October 1986, when his F-4 Phantom crashed nearby Sidon in southern Lebanon. Unlike the pilot, who was rescued by IDF units, Arad was taken hostage by Amal and later transferred to Hizbullah. In spite of intensive efforts to find and follow his traces, nothing concrete was known of Arad’s whereabouts after 1988. This led German officials, already during the negotiations leading to the 2004 swap, to come to the conclusion that Arad was long dead.
In the early 1990s, Germany must have seemed like the ideal mediator to the Israelis. Since 1987, dozens of German officials had been preoccupied with securing the release of German hostages in the hands of different Shiite groups in Lebanon. In January 1987, the Hoechst representative in Lebanon, Rudolf Cordes, and the Siemens technician Alfred Schmidt, were kidnapped and released in September 1988 and September 1987, respectively. After the kidnappers could not secure the release of the Hizbullah terrorists Mohammed and Abbas Hamadi from a German jail, they seized two other Germans in Lebanon, the humanitarian aid worker Heinrich Strübig and the male nurse Thomas Kemptner. Both were eventually freed in June 1992 – possibly due to Iranian pressure − but without securing the release of their brethren. In the case of Mohammed Hamadi, the steadfastness of the German government was most likely the result of American pressure. Hamadi had been convicted of taking part in the kidnapping of a Trans World Airlines flight from Athens to Rome and for the murder of US navy diver Robert Stethem in 1985.
In the course of the negotiations over the release of the four Germans, officials from different German institutions, including the Chancellery, the Foreign Office, the Federal Intelligence Service (Bundesnachrichtendienst or BND) and the Federal Criminal Police Office (Bundeskriminalamt, BKA) had plunged deep into the shadowy world of Lebanese politics in the late phase of the civil war and established close contacts to Hizbullah and their Syrian and Iranian allies. Therefore, the German government became the preferred mediator for the Israelis and the Hizbullah alike, benefitting from close relations to Israel. It also enjoys sympathies among many Arabs, who prefer Germany to the former colonial powers Britain and France, as well as the “imperialist” United States, who are distrusted even by many of their allies in the Middle East. The German mediators managed to convey an impression of impartiality, although contacts to the Israelis were much closer and trusting than with Hizbullah.