Israel will release two Lebanese prisoners in return for the two soldiers abducted by Hezbollah, as part of a cease-fire agreement, government and defense officials said yesterday.
The sources added that the UN Security Council would call for a cease-fire in Lebanon on Friday, and it could take effect as early as Saturday. Alternatively, the fighting might continue for a few more days.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told British Prime Minister Tony Blair that as soon as an international force deploys along the Israel-Lebanon and Lebanon-Syria borders, "it will be possible to implement a cease-fire."
Immediately after soldiers Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser were captured, Olmert said that Israel would not negotiate a prisoner exchange for their release - a position he also took following the abduction of Israel Defense Forces soldier Gilad Shalit in the Gaza Strip. Olmert's position received international support in the concluding statement issued by the G-8 summit, which called for the unconditional return of all Israeli captives.
However, with the fighting still ongoing, government and military sources said recently that Israel would find it difficult to insist on this position in negotiating a cease-fire.
The sources said that Israel would apparently agree to release Abu Amra Mamad, convicted of weapons possession, plus one illegal alien. It will not agree to release Palestinians. A government source added that Israel would also refuse to release Samir Kuntar, who murdered the Haran family and a police officer in Nahariya in 1979. In the last prisoner exchange with Hezbollah, the "Tennenbaum deal" of January 2004, it was agreed that Kuntar would be released only in exchange for information about missing airman Ron Arad.
On Saturday, Olmert rejected a proposal by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that Israel agree to discuss a withdrawal from Shaba Farms, on the slopes of Mount Hermon, as a gesture to strengthen the Lebanese government headed by Fouad Siniora. Olmert told Rice that there was no reason for an Israeli concession on Shaba, since Israel has already completely fulfilled the UN's demand that it withdraw from Lebanon - a fact affirmed by the Security Council in 2000.
In his talks with U.S. President George W. Bush and French President Jacques Chirac a few weeks ago, Olmert signaled a willingness to discuss Shaba to facilitate the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1559, which calls for disarming Hezbollah and deploying the Lebanese army in the south. However, his position changed after the outbreak of war in the north.
Yesterday, Rice met with Defense Minister Amir Peretz before winding up her visit in Jerusalem and returning to Washington. The two discussed a suspension of Israel Air Force attacks and efforts to ease the humanitarian situation in Lebanon.
Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni made a round of phone calls to her European Union counterparts and Security Council members yesterday, ahead of a meeting of EU foreign ministers today and Security Council discussions later this week. Livni told them that Israel should not be pressured into an immediate cease-fire, and the harsh pictures from Israel's bombing of Qana on Sunday should not distract attention from the main goal - implementation of Resolution 1559.
Meanwhile, differences of opinion emerged yesterday during preliminary talks among the U.S., France and other Security Council members regarding the priorities for a cease-fire.
Lebanon has asked to express its position during the deliberations, and a senior minister allied with Prime Minister Fouad Siniora is expected in New York.
A draft resolution is to be proposed by France, although sources at UN Headquarters said that the U.S. is also considering proposing a resolution of its own. The differences of opinion revolve mainly around the centrality of a cease-fire and when it should take effect.
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