PM Ehud Olmert's cabinet voted 22-3 to approve the proposed exchange of five Hizbullah terrorists for kidnapped IDF reservists Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser, who Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said are probably dead. Although the families of the two abducted soldiers were promised entry to the meeting before the vote, they only met with the PM after the cabinet meeting.

The three cabinet ministers voting against the deal were Ze'ev Boim, Roni Bar-On and Daniel Friedmann.

The proposed deal involves the release of five Hizbullah prisoners from Israeli prison and ten Hizbullah corpses, for the two IDF reservists.  The two abducted soldiers have long been assumed to be dead, but now Prime Minister Olmert has all but confirmed this.

Among the five Hizbullah prisoners is Samir Kuntar, who not only murdered three Israelis and caused the death of a fourth - members of the Haran family and a policeman - but is also considered Israel's final hope of ever receiving information on captured IAF navigator Ron Arad.  Arad was captured after his plane was felled over Lebanon in 1986 and was held by various terrorist groups; he was ultimately probably taken to Iran, and his whereabouts have been unknown for years.

The exchange is expected to take place within ten days, after President Shimon Peres signs a pardon for Kuntar.

Olmert, who said before the meeting that he himself is not sure how he would vote, took a strong position during the Cabinet session.  He recommended outright that the ministers approve the exchange, and said that Israel's information is that the two IDF soldiers were killed during the abduction, or shortly afterwards.

"It is a difficult dilemma," Olmert told his aides this morning, "but when I go to the Cabinet meeting, I'll know how to vote." 

On the one hand, his top aide Yoram Turbovitz opposed the deal, as did the chiefs of the Mossad and General Security Service. On the other hand, Olmert has promised the Goldwasser and Regev families that he would do everything he could to return their loved ones, and diplomat Ofer Dekel has been working for months to implement the deal.

At the start of the meeting, Olmert said he was torn by doubts: "Even those with the utmost responsibility, such as those in a position like mine, have the right to have doubts and deliberate, as well as the duty to do so, because this decision will have repercussions on our lives in the years to come... We have to be able to look directly in the eyes of the Regev, Goldwasser, Arad, Haran and Shalit families, as well as those of the citizens of Israel, and say that we made the decision with a clear conscience."

The meeting began with a security briefing: Mossad chief Meir Dagan and Shabak (General Security Service) head Yuval Diskin expressed their strong objection to the deal, while IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi and Intelligence Chief Amos Yadlin supported it.

"Deal Will Encourage Terrorists to Kill Abductees"

Opponents of the deal, including security experts, politicians, the ‏Almagor terrorism-victim organization and the Bereaved Parents Forum, said that a deal for dead bodies "would encourage the terror organizations to kill their abductees in the future, and also directly endangers Gilad Shalit who is being held by Hamas."  Shabak chief Yuval Diskin has said the same.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak, head of the Labor Party, was among those who raised their hand in favor, having said, "We have a moral obligation to bring the boys home, dead or alive."  He admitted last week that the deal is "problematic."  Vice Premier Chaim Ramon (Kadima) said the deal is reasonable, as "receiving Goldwasser and Regev is for sure, while receiving information on Arad is only a maybe..."

One Cabinet minister said, "You'll notice that we have never received a live body from Hizbullah in any prisoner exchange, except for Elchanan Tenenbaum; the three soldiers kidnapped in 2000, and apparently the current two as well, were returned dead." 

Industry and Trade Minister Eli Yishai (Shas) actually used this information to support the deal.  He noted that back in 1996, the Netanyahu government released 45 Hizbullah prisoners and the remains of 141 Hizbullah terrorists, in exchange for the remains of two Israeli soldiers - Yossi Fink and Rahamim Alsheikh - who had been kidnapped by Hizbullah ten years earlier.  Yishai did not mention that 17 Israel-allied South Lebanese Army prisoners were also freed by Hizbullah in the deal. 

After the vote, Yishai said, "Israel paid a lower price than in previous exchanges. If our assessment would have been that the soldiers were alive, we would have freed many more Arab prisoners and terrorists, based on past precedents."

Beilin: Against

Yossi Beilin, former leader of the left-wing Meretz party, noted that in 1998, Israel returned 40 terrorists corpses and 60 Lebanese prisoners for the body of Itamar Ilya, one of the 11 IDF commandos killed in a terrorist ambush in Lebanon in September 1997.  "It was a grave mistake then, and it will be a mistake to repeat it again now," Beilin wrote.

Rabbi Ronsky Expected to Rule That They are Dead

Opponents of the deal also demanded that the government not vote on the exchange until IDF Chief Rabbi Avi Ronsky issued a ruling as to whether Goldwasser and Regev can be considered dead according to Jewish Law.  They noted that it is absurd that the government does not even know whether the soldiers to be returned are alive or dead.

Rabbi Ronsky announced his opinion to his aides that the soldiers are, in fact, dead, but refused to make an official statement until the cabinet finished voting.

Karnit Goldwasser, wife of kidnapped IDF soldier Ehud Goldwasser, was amazed Sunday to hear Olmert inform his cabinet ministers that her husband is probably no longer alive. "This is the right direction, but why do we have to learn about it from reporters? If Olmert is in favor of the decision, this is the right direction. Nonetheless, I am surprised by his certainty that they are dead. So far, we have been informed that there is no concrete information," said the wife who just learned that she is probably a widow.