JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert sought the government’s go-ahead on Sunday for a prisoner swap with Hezbollah to recover two soldiers whose abduction by the Iranian-backed guerrillas triggered the 2006 Lebanon war.
Israeli media said Olmert would win a majority vote for the German-mediated deal at the cabinet session, despite arguments against trading live Lebanese prisoners in light of intelligence assessments that the soldiers are dead.
“This is a matter of the highest moral order,” Olmert said in broadcast remarks to the ministers before the debate, which was expected to take around two or three hours. But Olmert also said he had “vacillated deeply” over the proposed deal.
Through a U.N.-appointed German negotiator, Israel has offered to free five Lebanese guerrillas and repatriate the remains of around 10 people in exchange for army reservists Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev.
Topping the release roster is Samir Qantar, who is serving a life sentence for a 1979 border raid and whom Israeli officials previously described as the last “bargaining chip” for the return of missing air force navigator Ron Arad.
Hezbollah has said little about the indirect negotiations, but a Lebanese political source said this month that the final touches were being put on the swap deal.
Asked about media reports that the exchange could take place within two weeks, Transport Minister Shaul Mofaz, a former defense chief, told Israel Radio: “Whether it happens on the 11th or the 12th (of July) is not critical … What’s important is that we get this done as soon as possible.”
FROM WAR TO TALKS
Goldwasser and Regev were taken into Lebanon during a July 12, 2006 Hezbollah ambush on their border patrol. Eight other soldiers were killed.
Bloodstains and blast damage at the scene prompted Israeli officials to conclude that one or both of the captives did not survive. Hezbollah has not given details on their condition.
In parallel to the Hezbollah talks, the Olmert government is trying, via Egypt, to recover a soldier held by Hamas in Gaza.
Olmert at first ruled out any negotiations for the captured reservists, launching a 34-day offensive in Lebanon. That war killed more than 1,200 people in Lebanon and 157 Israelis.
Mofaz invoked a precept that soldiers be recovered from the battlefield, whether alive or dead: “If the state of Israel does not look out for its sons, its sons will not look out for it.”
Arad disappeared into captivity after bailing out during a 1986 sortie in Lebanon. Hezbollah has denied having knowledge on his whereabouts. Clemency for Qantar would be seen as an Israeli admission that the airman’s trail has gone cold.
Olmert deputy Haim Ramon said Israel faced a choice between the “certainty and reasonable price” of a swap for Goldwasser and Regev, and the ongoing uncertainly over Arad’s fate.
“Under such circumstances, I think there is no avoiding a decision in favor of the trade,” Ramon told Israel Radio, adding that the deal included a requirement that Hezbollah file a report on its efforts to come up with information on Arad.