Olmert calls on cabinet ministers to approve prisoner swap

But prime minister says Goldwasser and Regev are probably dead; heads of Mossad and Shin Bet urge ministers to reject deal with Hizbullah.

Regev Goldwasser 224.88 (photo credit: Channel 10)
Regev Goldwasser 224.88
(photo credit: Channel 10)
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert came out at Sunday's cabinet meeting squarely behind the prisoner swap with Hizbullah - in which Israel would free Samir Kuntar and a number of other prisoners in exchange for abducted IDF soldiers Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev - all but assuring that it will be approved and the deal will be carried out in a matter of days. "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." Olmert's decision to back the swap came even as the head of the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) and Mossad advised against accepting the deal, and even though Olmert said that it was almost certain that Regev and Goldwasser were not alive, but were either killed during the kidnapping attempt or died shortly thereafter from their wounds. The prime minister added that Hizbullah likely abducted the two soldiers precisely for the purpose of releasing Kuntar, as the group did not have any more information on the fate of Ron Arad - a previous condition for Kuntar's release. Olmert said that many foreign leaders he has met raised an eyebrow over the agony Israel was going through over this decision. "A nation that agonizes over the fate of one person, is a nation with staying power, deterrence and unending determination,:" he said. "A nation that gives up things in order to ensure life, save the wounded, and return home the fallen is a nation that creates steel bonds of mutual responsibility and commitment, of which nothing is stronger." Goldwasser's wife Karnit was disappointed with the manner of Olmert's declaration, telling the Knesset Channel that she would have expected an announcement of the soldiers' death be made to the families before it was made to the general public. His father Shlomo said he was not surprised by the declaration, but wanted proof the soldiers were dead. "There have been assessments for a long time," he said. "But none of this matters because it is not fact...They were alive when they were kidnapped and no one has provided us with evidence to the contrary." At the start of the meeting, Olmert said the government had the obligation to deliberate over the prisoner swap as it would have an impact on the lives of all Israelis. "There is no doubt that today's discussion has special weight and is exceptionally sensitive in terms of its national and moral implications," he said. "Even those with the utmost responsibility, like myself, have the right, and the obligation of deliberation, as the deal will have an impact on our lives in the coming years," Olmert told ministers. "We have a collective responsibility of the highest degree, and we need to be able to look the Regev, Goldwasser, Haran, Arad, and Schalit families in the eyes," Olmert said. Meanwhile, dozens of demonstrators gathered near the Knesset on Sunday morning to show their support for a prisoner swap deal with Hizbullah, as cabinet ministers convened to debate the issue. A vote was expected late in the afternoon. Among the demonstrators were family members and friends of Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, both of whom were kidnapped by Hizbullah in July 2006 while on reserve duty on the northern border. Ehud Goldwasser's mother, Miki, made one last request of the ministers before they voted on the deal which would see the release Lebanese terrorist Samir Kuntar for her son and Regev. "I would like everyone to look into my eyes and understand that there is a mother waiting for her son, a wife waiting for her husband, fathers waiting for their sons," Miki told The Jerusalem Post on Saturday night. "After all we have been through for two years and after the deal was made already and signed by both sides - Israel and Hizbullah - I want them to explain to me why we cannot finish this saga," she said. The families already appear to have the firm support of the cabinet, with 16 ministers out of 25 having indicated to the Post that they back the exchange. If the deal is approved, as seems likely, the exchange could take place "within a matter of days," one government source said. The source added, however, that there was "always the chance of a last-minute snag" that could delay or even scuttle the deal. The cabinet on Sunday was slated to hear numerous briefings from all the relevant security authorities, including Ofer Dekel, Olmert's emissary who negotiated the deal, the IDF and the Mossad. The ministers were also to be given the various assessments as to whether Regev and Goldwasser are still alive. While Dekel and the IDF support the deal, Mossad chief Meir Dagan is squarely opposed, arguing that Kuntar should only be released in exchange for reliable information on IAF navigator Ron Arad, who was captured alive in Lebanon in 1986. The last time the cabinet dealt with a prisoner swap was in November 2003, when it approved by a vote of 12 to 11 a deal that included the release of Elhanan Tannenbaum and the remains of St.-Sgts. Adi Avitan, Benny Avraham and Omar Sawayid in exchange for some 400 Palestinian security prisoners without "blood on their hands" and several dozen prisoners from Lebanon and other Arab countries. Then-prime minister Ariel Sharon forcefully pushed for the deal. Among the current ministers who voted for the 2003 swap were Olmert, then-minister of industry and trade; Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz, then-defense minister; and Environmental Protection Minister Gideon Ezra, who was a minister without portfolio. The only current minister who voted against the 2003 deal was Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who was the immigrant absorption minister at the time. 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 Justice Minister Daniel Friedmann and a number of Kadima ministers; Construction and Housing Minister Ze'ev Boim, Immigrant Absorption Minister Ya'acov Edri and Mofaz. Finance Minister Ronnie Bar-On and Defense Minister Ehud Barak refused to state their positions. But Barak said in a Saturday meeting with the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Michael Mullen, that "as a soldier and as someone who has commanded soldiers and is defense minister, I have determined that we have a military and ethical responsibility to have [the kidnapped soldiers] returned home - alive or dead." Among the sticking points is whether the two men 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 captured by Hizbullah. But according to Miki Goldwasser there is a body of evidence to indicate that they are alive. There are documents that say they were alive when they were captured, she said. "[Hizbullah leader Hassan] Nasrallah said that he took two Israeli soldiers alive," she said, adding that Hizbullah had ambulances waiting for them and that they had the medical knowledge to treat their wounds. "We know that Nasrallah wanted them alive," she said. Speaking to the media on Saturday, Karnit Goldwasser said "[her] feeling now is that this is the last opportunity to return Ehud and Eldad." She continued by saying that "if this opportunity isn't taken advantage of, it would likely take many more long years - if not now, I don't know when. If the deal isn't authorized, I'm afraid that we can expect three additional incidents like that of Ron Arad." Laura Lubretzky, the wife of a reservist from Eldad and Ehud's unit and a mother of two small boys, who planned to be at the Jerusalem rally Sunday, warned that if the cabinet rejects the deal "no one in my house will wear a uniform." Her husband Dudu, who is due to begin reserve duty on July 13, said that if the cabinet rejects the vote, he would consider not going. "That is a red line for us," he said. It would be hard for him to continue serving knowing that his country would not do its utmost to bring him home if he were taken, he said. But as of late Saturday night there was enough support to pass the deal. A spokesman for Minister-without-Portfolio Ami Ayalon (Labor) said Ayalon favored the deal but might reconsider his position if the deal includes the release of Palestinian prisoners. The other ministers who support the move include: Health Minister Ya'acov Ben Yizri (Gil Pensioners), Pensioners Affairs Minister Rafi Eitan (Gil Pensioners), Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit (Kadima), Environmental Protection Minister Gideon Ezra (Kadima), National Infrastructures Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer (Labor), Public Security Minister Avi Dichter (Kadima), Education Minister Yuli Tamir (Labor), Minister-without-Portfolio Ruhama Avraham-Balila (Kadima), 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) and Religious Services Minister Yitzhak Cohen (Shas).