Firm majority for Hizbullah swap deal

'Post' finds 15 ministers, including Shas members, to back deal, which includes release of Samir Kuntar.

Regev Goldwasser 224.88 (photo credit: Channel 10)
Regev Goldwasser 224.88
(photo credit: Channel 10)
With a cabinet vote set for Sunday, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has yet to come out in support of a deal with Hizbullah to return kidnapped reservists Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev. But 15 ministers, including Shas's quartet, indicated to The Jerusalem Post on Thursday that they were backing the exchange, and some of the other 10 ministers will likely support it, too. "I think we must make every move to bring them [Goldwasser and Regev] home," Education Minister Yuli Tamir (Labor) told the Post on Thursday. "The price [of the deal] is painful and intolerable, but it shouldn't be an obstacle," said Kadima Minister-without-Portfolio Ruhama Avraham-Balila. Both she and Tamir plan to support the deal, which includes the release of Lebanese terrorist Samir Kuntar. Olmert has not articulated publicly where he stands on the issue, and his office would not reveal his position Thursday night. One source in the Prime Minister's Office said that despite expectations of massive support inside the cabinet on Sunday for the deal, its approval should not be seen as a foregone conclusion. The source noted that two weeks ago, conventional wisdom was that the security cabinet would approve a major military operation inside Gaza, but in the end the security cabinet approved the cease-fire instead. Cabinet sources said the ministers would be briefed on the prisoner deal on Sunday by Ofer Dekel, the Olmert emissary who negotiated it through German mediator Gerhard Konrad, as well as by IDF officials and Mossad head Meir Dagan. Dekel and the IDF brass are believed to be in favor of the swap, while Dagan has come out against it. The ministers, according to cabinet sources, will also see the various assessments as to whether Regev and Goldwasser are still alive. On Monday night, in a move that was opposed by the Goldwasser and Regev families, OC IDF Chaplaincy Corps Rabbi Avichai Ronsky began examining the evidence to determine whether the two men could be declared dead according to Jewish law. There has been no sign of life from them since they were taken by Hizbullah while on patrol on the northern border in July 2006. It's unlikely that Ronsky will complete his work before the cabinet vote. One government official said the cabinet was almost certain to approve the swap. The families of the kidnapped soldiers, who believe the two men are alive, waged a successful campaign to mobilize public opinion in support of the exchange, making it very difficult for the cabinet ministers to raise their hands in opposition, the official said. On Sunday and Monday members of both families lobbied ministers to approve the agreement. Regev's father, Tzvi, told the Post that if the ministers kept to their word, there was enough support to pass it. Still, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who met with the families this week, had yet to state a position, preferring to wait until after Sunday's briefings at the cabinet. The same was true for a number of Kadima ministers, including Construction and Housing Minister Ze'ev Boim, Immigrant Absorption Minister Ya'acov Edri and Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz. Among the ministers' considerations is the issue of whether Goldwasser and Regev are alive or dead. But Tamir said that from her perspective, the question was no longer relevant. "At this point it doesn't really matter. We have to allow the families to know what exactly happened to them. Karnit [Goldwasser's wife] should be allowed to live a normal life as far as possible," said Tamir, adding that the whole issue "touches a very sensitive nerve within the public as to what it means to be Israeli. We have a responsibility to every soldier, and we should bring them home." None of the ministers contacted by the Post spoke out against the deal. However, MK Yuval Steinitz (Likud) said that if he were a minister, he would oppose the move. It should not be considered unless Hizbullah can prove that the two men are alive, he said. "I think this deal is a disaster," he said, particularly because "we have strong evidence that they [Goldwasser and Regev] are dead." He would not elaborate on what that evidence might be, but he added that it had been known for almost two years. In general, he said, "you should never start any kind of negotiation before you get solid information about the fate [of the captives]," Such a move would be a mistake because one should not "bargain for corpses," he said, as that would mean terrorists would have no incentive to provide information about future captives, or to even keep them alive. Steinitz warned that in the aftermath of such a deal, Hamas, for example, would have no incentive to keep alive St.-Sgt. Gilad Schalit, who was kidnapped by the group in June 2006. Since his abduction, his family has received two letters and an audio recording proving that he is still alive. A exchange of live terrorists for corpses could even encourage terrorists to steal body parts from cemeteries in hopes of striking a bargain to get them back, he said. "I call on my colleagues in the cabinet not to vote for it," he said. Still, those who support the move include Health Minister Ya'acov Ben Yizri (Gil Pensioners), Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit (Kadima), National Infrastructures Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer (Labor), Public Security Minister Avi Dichter (Kadima), Tamir, Avraham-Balila, Deputy Premier Haim Ramon (Kadima), Agriculture Minister Shalom Simhon (Labor), Science, Culture and Sport Minister Ghaleb Majadle (Labor), Welfare and Social Services Minister Isaac Herzog (Labor), Industry, Trade and Labor Minister Eli Yishai (Shas), Communications Minister Ariel Attias (Shas), Minister-without-Portfolio Meshulam Nahari (Shas), Religious Services Minister Yitzhak Cohen (Shas) and Environmental Protection Minister Gideon Ezra (Kadima).