Cabinet ratifies prisoner exchange

Senior government source: Israel is in for a "difficult few days;" Miki Goldwasser: This decision is a victory.

rosh hanikra idf 224 88 (photo credit: AP )
rosh hanikra idf 224 88
(photo credit: AP )
Israel is in for a "difficult few days" a senior government source said Tuesday after the cabinet removed the last hurdle to the return of kidnapped soldiers Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser by voting overwhelmingly to go ahead with the prisoner swap deal. By a vote of 22-3, the cabinet ministers - in a meeting described as "much more relaxed" than a cabinet meeting two weeks ago that approved the guidelines of the deal - decided to ratify the swap even though a Hizbullah report on the fate of Ron Arad was characterized as a "fraud." The government source said the difficult days in store would be due primarily to the celebrations in Lebanon expected to accompany the return of Samir Kuntar, the terrorist responsible for the brutal deaths of four Israelis in Nahariya in 1979. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert intimated at what he thought was in store when he told the ministers that if they thought they were doing the "popular" thing two weeks ago by voting for the deal, they would now likely come under criticism Wednesday for freeing Kuntar after the pictures of celebrations in Beirut were broadcast. He characterized Kuntar as a "despicable murderer" who crushed the skull of a four-year-old girl with the butt of a rifle. Nevertheless, Olmert said, the government made a decision to approve the swap, and now needed to go through with the process. Olmert's spokesman, Mark Regev, said after the meeting that "anyone who knows who is Samir Kuntar, and what he has done, must be horrified by the way Hizbullah is treating him as a returning hero. Kuntar is guilty of a horrendous crime, and that he is being put on a pedestal and rated as someone worthy of being exalted says more about Hizbullah - who they are, and what they stand for - than anything else." Goldwasser's mother, Miki, also said that the different way Israel and Hizbullah were dealing with the swap highlighted Israel's moral superiority. In Lebanon, by treating Kuntar as a hero, they are celebrating the return of a murderer. We are returning sons who are pure, who were defending their homeland. They were not criminals and they did not kill. That is the reason the victory is ours," she said. "This decision is a victory for the people of Israel, not just the families," she continued. "I was very happy that at the end of the day 22 ministers voted for the deal. It shows that they listened to the will of the nation, the majority of which supported their return." Goldwasser said the vote restored national pride in the moral responsibility the country has to its citizens and its soldiers. "We were on our way to losing that," she said. The cabinet voted to go ahead with the deal even though it was told by the relevant security bodies - the Mossad, Military Intelligence and Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) - that the 80-page report delivered by Hizbullah a few days ago on the fate of missing airman Ron Arad was completely unacceptable. "We think they could provide much more than they have, actual information about what happened to Ron Arad," one source who took part in Tuesday's meeting said. He said that Israel would continue to press for information on Arad, as was spelled out in the communiqué issued after Tuesday's cabinet meeting. Mossad head Meir Dagan reportedly told the ministers that the report was a "fraud," and it was decided to send it back to Lebanon. Olmert, who a day earlier told UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon in Paris that the report on Arad was unacceptable, told the government he did not see the Arad case as closed, and that Israel continued to see itself as committed to finding out all possible information regarding what happened to the airman, who was shot down in 1986. One government source said that the previous cabinet decision from June 29 which approved the prisoner swap deal, did not condition going forward with the deal on what would be provided in the report on Arad. "No one at the time had any high expectations of anything substantial in the report," the source said. Nevertheless, at the time, senior government officials had said that the actual prisoner swap would only take place after Israel determined that the report had lived up to "expected standards." The same ministers who voted against the deal two weeks ago - Finance Minister Roni Bar-On, Justice Minister Daniel Friedmann, and Housing and Construction Minister Ze'ev Boim - objected on Tuesday as well. Bar-On reiterated his position that he felt it was a mistake to swap live prisoners for those assumed to no longer be alive, and that Israel's agreement at a later stage to release a yet undetermined amount of Palestinian prisoners would raise the stature of Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah, and make him appear as the "patron" of the Palestinians. Boim said he was afraid the swap would make it harder for Israel to win the release of kidnapped IDF soldier St.-Sgt. Gilad Schalit. "No one should be surprised if Hamas will now raise the price for freeing him," Boim said. "There is some basis to assessments that there is no need to keep Israeli soldiers alive in captivity because Israel will pay a high price even for bodies." And Justice Minister Daniel Friedmann, who criticized the deal in the past, saying the price Israel was being asked to pay was exorbitant, said that his position hasn't changed either. At the same time, he said he would respect the government's decision and sign the necessary documents to release Kuntar, and give them to President Shimon Peres for his final pardon. Public Security Minister Avi Dichter, who voted for the agreement, said that everyone who sends soldiers to battle or agents on missions needed to be able to look them in the eyes and say that everything would be done to bring them back home if they fell into captivity. Tovah Lazaroff contributed to this report.