Sunday, June 29, 2008

Captive Soldiers Probably Dead, Exchange Must Go Through

Hillel Fendel

The Cabinet is about to conclude a five-hour session and vote to approve the proposed exchange of five Hizbullah terrorists for two abducted Israeli soldiers. The families of the two abducted soldiers - IDF reservists Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser, who Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said are probably dead - were invited to the end of the meeting, before the vote.The proposed deal involves the release of five Hizbullah prisoners from Israeli prison and ten Hizbullah corpses, for IDF reservists Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser. 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.

Olmert, who said before the meeting that he himself is not sure how he will 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 opposes the deal, as do 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 consummate 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 will begin 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 support 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, say 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.

Shas, Labor in Favor
The Cabinet ministers are expected to approve the deal, especially now that Olmert has come out in favor. The ministers of Shas, the Pensioners, and Labor have said they will support it, as have some Kadima members. Defense Minister Sha'ul Mofaz, head of the Labor Party, is among those who will raise 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."

Barak's party colleague Welfare Minister Yitzchak Herzog said he would vote for the exchange if he does not hear "anything significantly different during the security briefing than I have heard over the media."

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.

Beilin: Against
Yossi Beilin, former leader of the left-wing Meretz party, noted that in 1998, Israel returned 40 terrorists corpses and 60 Lebanese prisoner 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 have also demanded that the government not vote on the exchange until IDF Chief Rabbi Avi Ronsky issues 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 is reportedly very close to announcing that the soldiers are, in fact, dead.

Karnit Goldwasser, the wife of Ehud Goldwasser and currently in total limbo in that she does not know if she is married or a widow, said, "We ask that the ministers vote in favor of the deal, as this is the last stop in our drive to return Udi [Ehud] and Eldad."

The Media's Role
This emotional appeal opened the popular "It's All Talk" Israel Radio morning radio show, hosted by Yaron Dekel - who prompty accused the Maariv and Yediot Acharonot newspapers of mounting a public campaign in favor of the deal. Political Science Prof. Mordechai Kedar of Bar Ilan University and veteran journalist Mati Golan agreed; Kedar said the media had "brought Israel to its knees," and Golan added that the owners and editors lack the necessary knowledge to take such responsibility upon themselves..

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