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Germany's success as Mid-East broker

By Kathryn Westcott
BBC News

Germany has once again drawn on its successful diplomacy and secret network of contacts in the Middle East, to help broker a prisoner swap deal between Israel and Hezbollah.

Lebanese prisoners
The last Lebanese prisoners in Israeli jails will be handed over
Gerhard Conrad, who holds a senior post in Germany's foreign intelligence agency, BND, has been overseeing the deal, officially on behalf of the UN.

The country's secret service agents - reportedly including Mr Conrad - have played a key role in the two major prisoner exchange deals in 1996 and 2004.

In the Middle East, personal relations are key to negotiations, and the BND has long-standing contacts with key players, among them Israeli Mossad agents as well as Iranian secret service agents.

Germans enjoy a reputation in the region as an "honest broker".

'Fair'

Hezbollah MP Nawar Sahili told the BBC ahead of Wednesday's prisoner swap that the Germans had dealt with the sensitive prisoner exchange issue "in a fair way."

"The US government and the British government and a lot of European governments do not treat Lebanon and the Arab countries in the same way as they treat Israel," he said.

The two Israeli soldiers who were captured in 2006
The capture of two Israeli soldiers sparked a war in 2006
He added that unlike the UK, the US or France, it helped that Germany was "not involved with the problems in the region in a direct way".

"They are not taking one side against another side, that is why they are succeeding. That is real diplomacy," he said.

The Middle East has been the focus of post-war German foreign policy outside Europe.

It is, for example, a key donor in the Palestinian territories, but also a big supporter of Israel. And, it is Iran's biggest trading partner in the EU.

Earlier this year, German Chancellor Angela Merkel delivered an historic speech before the Israeli Knesset (parliament), in which she expressed contrition for Germany's Holocaust against the Jews.

'Humanitarian solutions'

Dr Martin Beck, of the GIGA Institute of Middle East Studies in Hamburg says that since the 1980s and 1990s, Germany has made great efforts to remain even-handed in the Arab-Israeli conflict.

File picture of Ron Arad
The fate of Ron Arad has been a key issue for Israeli governments
"When it comes to Israel, the past - ie the Holocaust - is the main factor shaping Germany's policy," says Dr Beck.

"From an Arab perspective, it is not seen to pursue its own vested political interests. It is not, for example, perceived as a former colonial power. This helps it come across as an honest broker."

Germany's mediatory activity is largely guided by its desire to find "humanitarian solutions" to the problems of the Middle East.

Mr Beck says this is all part of a notion of "civilian power" that Germany has adopted as a role model for its foreign policy since the last war.

"If you want to sell foreign policy to the German public, it's best to present it as humanitarian, as part of the policy of promoting peace rather than pursuing power politics," he says.

Germany's involvement in mediating prisoner exchanges began in the late 1980s, when Israel first asked Chancellor Helmut Kohl for help in winning the release of Israeli airman Ron Arad, missing since his plane was shot down over Lebanon in 1986.

His fate has been a major issue for successive Israeli governments.

Israel believes that he was captured by Shia militants and eventually handed over to Iran. Tehran has always denied involvement.

Past successes

In the late 1980s, Germany was engaged in what is sometimes described as "critical dialogue" with Iran's Islamic leadership.

Ernst Uhrlau in a 2006 file picture
Ernst Uhrlau, head of the BND, which has played a mediatory role
In 1992, the BND, successfully secured the release of two German hostages who were being held by pro-Iranian Lebanese captors.

Bernd Schmidbauer, who was head of the BND in the 1990s, has said that frank and continual talks with Iran under the "critical dialogue" policy played a key role in Germany's first prisoner exchange success.

In 1996, Hezbollah - which was backed by Iran - released the bodies of two missing Israeli soldiers in exchange for the remains of more than 100 anti-Israeli fighters.

The 1996 success was followed up in 2004 when Germany negotiated a major prisoner swap. Israel freed 400 Palestinian prisoners to the West Bank and Gaza, and 30 other Arabs. Israel also returned the remains of 59 guerrillas to Lebanon.

For Germany outcome is more important than the prestige
Margret Johannsen
In return, Hezbollah released a kidnapped Israeli businessman and the bodies of three Israeli soldiers that it ambushed in 2000.

Negotiations for such deals take place in the shadowy world of closed-door talks and "back-channel" discussions. They can take years to complete.

Margret Johannsen from the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy at the University of Hamburg says Germany is adept at "quiet diplomacy" .

Germany, she says, likes to keep a low profile, when it comes to such sensitive issues.

"It is not interested in the attention, it takes a quiet approach, which shows that it is aware of the subtleties involved" she says. "The outcome is more important than the prestige."

Germany, she says, does not have a glorious past exerting influence in military strength. Humanitarian developments earn it prestige, she says.

"It's a good-looking policy."



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