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Israel mulls swap deal with Hezbollah

Israeli PM Ehud Olmert urges his Cabinet to vote for an emotionally charged deal to swap bodies of two soldiers for a notorious Lebanese prisoner.

world Updated: Jun 29, 2008 18:20 IST

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Sunday declared two soldiers held by Lebanese militants to be dead and urged his Cabinet to vote for an emotionally charged deal to swap their bodies for a notorious Lebanese prisoner.

The Israeli Cabinet was expected to approve the deal with the Lebanese Hezbollah militant group, which has sparked a fierce public debate over whether Israel would be giving up too much or carrying out its highest commitment to its soldiers to do everything possible to bring them home if they fell into enemy hands. The deal would have Hezbollah return two Israeli soldiers it captured in a July 2006 cross-border raid that sparked a vicious, monthlong war in Lebanon. In return, Israel would release Samir Kantar, a Lebanese guerrilla imprisoned for nearly 30 years for an attack etched in the Israeli psyche as one of the cruelest in the nation's history.

Hezbollah had offered no sign that the soldiers, Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, were alive and the Red Cross was never allowed to see them. Appealing to his Cabinet to approve the deal, Olmert said for the first time that Israel has concluded that the two soldiers were dead killed during the raid or shortly after. "We know what happened to them," Olmert said, according to a prepared statement given to the Cabinet and released by his office. "As far as we know, the soldiers Regev and Goldwasser are not alive."

Goldwasser's 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 kidnapped and no one has provided us with evidence to the contrary."

In exchange for the soldiers' bodies, the Cabinet was asked to agree to give up Kantar, who is serving multiple life terms in a 1979 infiltration attack on a northern Israeli town. Witnesses said Kantar then 16 shot Danny Haran in front of his 4-year-old daughter, then smashed her skull against a rock with his rifle butt, killing her, too.

During the attack, Danny Haran's wife accidentally smothered their 2-year-old daughter in a frantic attempt to keep her quiet so Kantar and his comrades wouldn't find them. Two Israeli policemen also were killed. Kantar denies killing the 4-year-old. Israel's military chief of staff, the head of the Mossad intelligence agency, the commander of the Shin Bet security service and other defense officials briefed ministers before the vote. The Mossad and Shin Bet chiefs opposed the deal, officials said. The military chief, Lt Gen Gabi Ashkenazi, has said he hoped the soldiers would come home soon.

The deal would require Hezbollah's approval. Germany has been trying to mediate a prisoner exchange since the for two years. The debate over whether to trade an infamous attacker for two soldiers believed to be dead taps into a military ethos that runs deep within Israeli society, where most young men and many young women perform compulsory service. Soldiers go out to battle with the understanding they won't be left behind in the field. The controversy also has weighed the immediacy of the Regev and Goldwasser families' anguish against the pain suffered by a family attacked nearly 30 years ago. The woman whose family Kantar killed, Smadar Haran Kaiser, has in the past opposed his release. An aide to Public Security Minister Avi Dichter said Haran Kaiser gave Dichter a letter approving the deal.

"There is no doubt that today's discussion has special weight and is exceptionally sensitive in terms of its national and moral implications," Olmert said at the start of the Cabinet meeting. Israeli newspapers splashed pictures of the soldiers, their families and military comrades on their front pages. "Bring them home," ran the headline of the Yediot Ahronot mass-circulation daily. "Look us in our teary eyes," ran the headline in Maariv, under a picture of Goldwasser's parents and Regev's father. A recent poll by Israel's Dahaf Research Institute showed that 65 percent of those questioned said Kantar should be released in exchange for the two soldiers held by Hezbollah, even if it was not known whether they are dead or alive. The survey of 500 people had a margin of error of 4.4 percentage points.

The soldiers' families have mounted a concerted public campaign to get the government to vote for the swap. Family and friends demonstrated outside Olmert's office while the ministers were deliberating.

Goldwasser's wife, who has traveled the globe meeting with world leaders in an effort to bring her husband home, said troops would be less willing to fight for their country if they sensed their country had wavered in its commitment to its soldiers.

"If they won't bring (the soldiers) back, I believe the message is to the people here is that the country is not going to stand for them, and this is why people in this country are not going to stand for this country," Karnit Goldwasser told Associated Press Television News.

Some Cabinet ministers took the same view. "I believe in this deal with all my heart. There's no room for hesitation, not to agree to the deal is to erase our obligation to bring back every soldier," Cabinet Minister Meir Sheetrit said ahead of the meeting. Other politicians were afraid the emotional appeals of the soldiers' families could lead the government to bend sacred principles.

"If they are dead, I certainly oppose this deal," dovish lawmaker Yossi Beilin told Israel Radio before the Cabinet meeting began. "The principle must be releasing live prisoners for live hostages, and releasing bodies in return for the fallen." Israel is also supposed to release four other Lebanese prisoners and an unspecified number of bodies of Hezbollah guerrillas. Hezbollah has demanded the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners as well, but Israel is willing to release between five and 10, a senior Israeli government official said. It is not clear whether the Lebanese group would agree to that compromise. In addition to the two captured soldiers held in Lebanon, Israel is trying to win back a third soldier captured by Palestinian militants in a June 2006 cross-border raid from the Gaza Strip. Sgt. Gilad Schalit has sent letters and an audio tape to his parents and is believed to be alive, though he has not been seen since his capture and the Red Cross has not been permitted to visit him. When Israel has agreed to prisoner swaps in the past, the terms have been dramatically disproportionate. In one hotly contested exchange, Israel in 1985 released 1,150 Arab prisoners, almost all of them Palestinians, in exchange for three soldiers captured by Lebanese guerrillas in 1982. The debate over that deal flared when some of the freed prisoners played key roles in a Palestinian uprising against Israel that began in 1987.

Militants have tried for years to get Kantar released. But Israel has held on to him for nearly three decades, hoping to use him as a bargaining chip to wring information from Hezbollah about the fate of a missing Israeli airman, Ron Arad, captured in Lebanon after his plane crashed in 1986.

Recently, Israeli leaders concluded Hezbollah has no new information about Arad. His family which had been told by a previous government that Kantar would not be released without more information about Arad's whereabouts shunned an invitation to meet with Olmert to discuss the prisoner swap.