Israeli sources: Deal with Hezbollah maybe next week
An exchange of prisoners with Hezbollah is expected to take place in the near future, Israeli security sources confirmed yesterday. The deal will not take place this week, but sources said it is likely to take place late next week.
Lebanese media referred to a number of dates for an exchange yesterday, with Friday June 20 being the earliest, and Wednesday June 25 being the latest.
A senior political source told Haaretz yesterday that Israel is still waiting for a final response from Hezbollah and "nothing is final yet."
Zvi Regev, father of reservist Eldad Regev, abducted by Hezbollah on July 12, 2006 along with Ehud Goldwasser, said yesterday the family had recently been briefed about an exchange deal that was described as in advanced stages.
In an interview to Israel Radio, Regev said Ofer Dekel, who has been charged by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert with managing the deal over the prisoners, "told us in general terms there will be a deal. That there is a deal, that's it."
Regev argued he does not know what the medical condition of the two reservists is.
"No one actually knows ... we are aware what the worst case scenario can be, but we are still hopeful for good news," he added.
Miki Goldwasser, mother of Ehud, told Haaretz yesterday the family has no official information about the deal or about when it might take place.
"We met Ofer Dekel a week ago and he said there is dialogue but he did not tell us that the deal is done," she said.
In spite of reports the two soldiers are dead, Miki Goldwasser said "we assume the boys were taken while still alive."
Dekel is due back in Israel Thursday, presumably from Germany where Berlin has been mediating a deal with Hezbollah, and will update the prime minister on developments.
Meanwhile, the family of missing air force navigator Ron Arad, announced last night it would not participate in a meeting with the prime minister scheduled to take place today.
Olmert initiated the meeting to inform them he had decided to include Samir Kuntar, a Lebanese man responsible for a murderous attack against a family in Nahariya. Kuntar has remained in Israeli prison, in part as a result of pressure by the Arad family, because he is considered to be the "final" bargaining chip for information on the fate of Ron Arad, who was captured after ejecting from his aircraft over Lebanon in 1986.
Sources in the Prime Minister's Bureau said last night the meeting was not cancelled and had been postponed.
However, Elad Shraga, the head of the organization Born Free, which has been working to locate and free Arad, said last night that in closed meetings the Arad family attacked Olmert for intending to release Kuntar without receiving information on the missing navigator.
In 2004, as part of the deal for the release of Elhanan Tannenbaum, Kuntar was to be released at a later stage in exchange for Hezbollah information on the fate of Ron Arad. At the time, Israel refused to release Kuntar, arguing that the information Hezbollah provided on Arad was inconclusive.
Exchange on German soil
In addition to Kuntar, the deal for the release of the two abducted soldiers includes four Hezbollah men captured during the Second Lebanon War in 2006. No Palestinian prisoners will be released in the deal.
It is expected that the exchange will take place on German soil, in part because Israel is concerned that a transfer through the border crossing in Rosh Hanikra would allow Hezbollah to hold victory celebrations in southern Lebanon.
The deal is still pending cabinet approval and there is no definitive date set for deliberations on the matter. The prime minister may only seek approval from his cabinet via telephone.
Barak: We'll do what it takes
Some ministers told Haaretz recently they would not oppose the deal, if its parameters were restricted to what has been known in public - which includes a total of six Lebanese prisoners.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak said yesterday that "Israel has done and will continue to do all in its power, including underhanded ways to bring back its prisoners. This is true for Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev and also Gilad Shalit," he said referring to the IDF soldier held by Hamas.
Earlier this month, Israel released Nissam Nasar convicted of espionage after he served a prison term.
The relatively low number of prisoners who are being freed in the deal (compared to previous exchanges) stems from the fact that Israel made it clear to Hezbollah, through the German mediator, that it assumes the two soldiers are dead.
Israel also warned Hezbollah that unless the group agreed to the terms, it would declare the two soldiers dead, narrowing the radical Shi'ite group's bargaining power further.
Built into the warning was the likelihood that in such an eventuality, Israel would only agree to trade in dead Hezbollah fighters, not living prisoners.
Barak Ravid, Yuval Azoulay, Yoav Stern and Jack Khoury contributed to this article.