Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, the two soldiers whose kidnapping on July 12, 2006, triggered the Second Lebanon War, are expected to be returned to Israel within 10 days as a result of Sunday's cabinet approval of a swap with Hizbullah.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, in a dramatic statement to his ministers at the outset of a six-hour discussion on the deal, said the two men are almost certainly dead.
"As far as we know, the two soldiers - Udi Goldwasser and Eldad Regev - are no longer alive," he said. "As far as we know, they were killed during the kidnapping or died from their wounds soon after the incident."
Nevertheless, Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi came out squarely for the deal at the cabinet meeting, saying the nation owed it to do everything in its power to win its soldiers' return. Ashkenazi was one of a number of top security officials who briefed the ministers.
According to the resolution that was approved by an overwhelming majority of 22-3, Israel will receive Goldwasser and Regev, as well as a Hizbullah report on the disappearance of airman Ron Arad, captured in Lebanon in 1986, and the remaining body parts of soldiers killed during the Second Lebanon War.
In exchange, Israel will release Lebanese terrorist Samir Kuntar, responsible for the brutal deaths of four Israelis in Nahariya in 1979; four Hizbullah fighters being held by Israel; dozens of bodies of infiltrators and terrorists, including eight Hizbullah men; and information that will be given to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on the disappearance of four Iranian diplomats in Beirut in 1982, during Israel's invasion.
After these exchanges are made, Israel is to release an undetermined number of Palestinian security prisoners. According to the cabinet resolution, the number of prisoners to be released, as well as their identities, will be determined by Israel.
Hizbullah, according to government sources, demanded the release of 700 Palestinians, something that Israel did not agree to.
Immigrant Absorption Minister Ya'acov Edri said after the meeting that Ashkenazi had been key in getting him to change his mind and vote for the deal.
"He [Ashkenazi] said that he is the commander of the soldiers who are both living and dead," Edri said. "He is the one who is likely to lead the next battle. He has to look in the eyes of the soldiers now serving and convince them that the government would do its utmost to return them home if they are captured. It was very convincing."
While Ashkenazi, as well as Ofer Dekel, Olmert's emissary who negotiated the swap through German mediator Gerhard Konrad, urged the ministers to vote in favor of it.
Mossad head Meir Dagan and Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) chief Yuval Diskin all opposed the deal, on the grounds that in releasing Kuntar, Israel was forfeiting its final chance of ever discovering Arad's fate.
Diskin said that Israel had gone into the negotiations thinking that Regev and Goldwasser were alive, and should not pay the same price now that they are presumed dead.
The cabinet was also briefed by OC Intelligence Maj.-Gen. Amos Yadlin; Amos Gilad, the head of the Defense Ministry's Diplomatic-Political Bureau; and Ilan Biran, who preceded Dekel as Israel's point man on the prisoner issue.
The three ministers who voted against the agreement were Finance Minister Ronnie Bar-On, who argued that Israel should not release Palestinians to Hizbullah; Justice Minister Daniel Friedmann, who said the price was exorbitant; and Housing and Construction Minister Ze'ev Boim, who said that the deal would encourage more terrorism.
The direction of the debate became clear early on when Olmert, who had not yet revealed his position on the matter, said he was backing the exchange.
"At the end of a long process, which I summarized for you, I came to the conclusion that as the prime minister of Israel I should recommended approval of the resolution that will bring to an end this painful chapter, even at the painful price that it extracts from us," he said.
According to cabinet sources, the first stage of the deal will take place in several days, when the agreement is signed by Israel and Hizbullah. Dekel will sign it on Israel's behalf, but it is not clear where the signing will be held.
Following the signing, Israel will be given a report from Hizbullah dealing with the disappearance of Arad, and will in turn give a report on the disappearance of the Iranian diplomats.
If Konrad believes that the report on Arad meets the expected standards, and if Israel concurs, the actual exchange will take place, though it is not yet clear where. Cabinet sources said that the trade would likely take place in seven to 10 days.
A month later, the sources said, Israel will release a number of Palestinian security prisoners after their names are brought to the cabinet for approval.
Regarding the report on Arad, Olmert indicated that Konrad has already seen the document. "The report handed over does not improve this situation, even if according to the opinion, based on a superficial reading, by the mediator, this report is more detailed than previous reports. It does not provide us with an unequivocal answer."
Olmert, in his lengthy comments to the cabinet, summarized the agonizing moral question lurking behind the decision, saying that "there is no escape from dealing with the fundamental and essential issue of what the obligation is for a country which sends its soldiers into battle, and they are taken captive while in its service."
Olmert said that while the country's values demanded that no soldier be left behind, "over the years we also learned that this obligation has limits. A country must have limits even when dealing with the price of freedom for soldiers, and the price for their very lives." Indicating that once this deal, and the deal for the release of Gilad Schalit, were done with, Israel would establish new game rules for dealing with prisoner swaps, he said there was a need to set "organized, agreed-upon and firm procedures to deal with this issue in the future, and we will do so soon."
Olmert said that he struggled with the question of whether holding out now would have brought about a better deal, and that he concluded that if Israel followed that path it could well face a situation similar to the situation it faces with Arad - that the fate of the missing soldiers would not be known for decades.
"Our agony, the cries of pain which were heard, are not
an expression of weakness, but rather of unparalleled moral strength," he said.
"More than once, world leaders with whom I spoke about this situation and about Gilad Schalit and Ron Arad and our missing soldiers - expressed their amazement about the emotional burden which Israeli society places on itself in this regard," he said.
"A nation which is tormented by the fate of one man is a strong nation with stamina and a deterrence capability and endless determination. A nation which concedes in order to ensure life, save its wounded, bring home its dead - is a nation which creates unbreakable bonds of mutual obligation," he added.
During the emotional cabinet meeting, Smadar Haran, the wife and mother of Kuntar's victims, wrote a letter that was given to each of the ministers saying that Kuntar was never her "personal prisoner."
"I request that my personal pain not be a consideration when you come to deal with what is before you," she wrote. "And even if this is difficult for me, I will not come out against any decision that is accepted today. Even if my soul is torn, and it is, my heart is whole."
Following the cabinet decision, the Regev and Goldwasser families held a brief meeting with Olmert, which government sources said was short, very emotional, and held without any criticism.
Regev's father told the prime minister that he still prayed and hoped his son would return alive, a comment that brought tears and a hug from Olmert.
In a related development, the Shurat HaDin Israel Law Center said it would file a petition with the High Court of Justice on Monday morning seeking to block the cabinet decision to release information on the fate of the Iranian diplomats unless there were a quid pro quo and Iran provides information on 12 Iranian Jews who disappeared in the 1990s while trying to go from to Israel from Iran, via Pakistan. The petition will be filed on behalf of the families of the 12 missing Iranian Jews by Nitsana Darshan-Leitner.
Shurat HaDin claims it has reliable information that at least one of the Jews is still alive and being held as a prisoner in Teheran. According to the organization, the 12 attempted to flee Iran and emigrate to Israel but disappeared without a trace between 1994 and 1997. It is alleged by the families that the Jews were kidnapped by Iranian security services and are still being held captive in Teheran.
Tovah Lazaroff contributed to this report.â€¢