PM: Hezbollah's Arad report unsatisfactory
The cabinet will discuss Hezbollah's report on its efforts to determine the fate of missing Israeli airman Ron Arad today and will be briefed on its assessment following deliberations by the heads of the country's intelligence organizations.
According to a source in Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's entourage to Paris, the result of the cabinet's final vote on the prisoner exchange will be based on what it hears in this briefing.
Meanwhile, the Goldwasser and Regev families renewed their campaign this week to convince cabinet ministers to support the prisoner swap with Hezbollah, fearing that despite the cabinet's approval of the deal on June 29, last-minute problems might pop up.
In particular, the families are worried that criticism of Hezbollah's report on Ron Arad, and the fact that his fate remains a mystery, could provide an excuse for cancelling the deal.
A number of ministers and advisors estimated yesterday that despite such problems, a majority of the cabinet will vote in favor of completing the exchange tomorrow.
However, statements by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert during his visit to Paris leave room for doubt. While attending the Union for the Mediterranean summit meeting, Olmert met with United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. The prime minister told him that Hezbollah's report on Arad was "absolutely unsatisfactory." Olmert also thanked Ban Ki-moon for the UN's mediation efforts in the prisoner exchange as well as those of the German mediator.
Speaking after his meeting with Ban Ki-moon, Olmert said that Israel was still determined to shed additional light on the fate of Arad, who has not been seen since his plane was shot down over Lebanon in 1986.
"The prime minister made clear to the secretary-general that he considers the report to be absolutely unsatisfactory," Olmert's aide told reporters in Paris at the close of the Union for the Mediterranean summit. Asked whether Israel was sufficiently satisfied with the report to push forward with the prisoner swap, the aide said "I don't know. We are working on clarifications."
Olmert, who voted in favor of the swap at the previous cabinet session, did so only after a period of indecision, which was widely covered in the media up until the last minute. Defense Minister Ehud Barak's aides said yesterday that this time, too, Olmert will in the end vote in favor of the deal.
Barak and Olmert will meet to discuss Hezbollah's report on Arad ahead of today's cabinet session. They will be joined by senior defense officials. On Sunday night, the heads of the security establishment and intelligence agencies met to discuss the report, and the disagreements remained: the head of the Mossad, Meir Dagan, and the head of the Shin Bet security service, Yuval Diskin, oppose the swap deal in its present form. The head of Military Intelligence, Maj. Gen. Amos Yadlin, as well as his commander, Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi, support the deal, despite their reservations about the report on Ron Arad.
Ofer Dekel, the chief Israeli negotiator for the deal with the Hezbollah, is scheduled to present the report to the cabinet along with the framework of the deal.
Barak plans to put pressure on ministers to approve the agreement, and he feels a majority will support it. He postponed his planned Washington trip due to the sessions on the swap. His meetings with senior American officials were scheduled to start today, but will be put off until August.
The defense minister addressed Hezbollah's report yesterday, at a Labor Party caucus meeting. He said that it did not supply definitive answers to what happened to Arad after his capture and reiterated that Israel was solely responsible for finding out Arad's fate.
"On the second anniversary of the 2006 Lebanon war, we should put it clearly - Resolution 1701 didn't work, doesn't work and will probably not work," Barak said. "It is a failure."
In contrast to Olmert, however, Barak yesterday - for the second time in 24 hours - expressed full support in the prisoner exchange agreement with Hezbollah.
"The report on Ron Arad as conveyed by Hezbollah does not provide a clear answer as to his fate, and does not resolve the case. We are committed to continue our efforts to clarify his fate. Despite this, as minister of defense and as a former commander in chief and officer, it is my moral and military obligation to continue to advance the return of Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser."
Meanwhile, the Israel Prisons Service has placed the four Hezbollah prisoners together in the Hadarim Prison near Netanya, in preparation for their return to Lebanon as part of the deal, along with convicted murderer Samir Kuntar. If the cabinet approves the swap today, the preparations will continue. The exchange is scheduled to take place tomorrow morning at 9 A.M. at the Rosh Hanikra border crossing with Lebanon.
The deal will proceed in several stages: first Hezbollah will transfer Regev and Goldwasser - which, according to intelligence estimates, will involve the transfer of their bodies. If this is the case, then the IDF Rabbinate and the police will identify the bodies. After a positive identification, Kuntar and the other four Lebanese will be released, along with 199 Lebanese and Palestinian corpses, which will transferred to Lebanon.
The Goldwasser and Regev families will be given an opportunity to be united with their loved loved ones at an army base south of Nahariya.
The completion of the prisoner swap deal with Hezbollah should accelerate the contacts with Hamas on the release of abducted soldier Gilad Shalit. In this regard, Barak said yesterday: "The challenge of returning Shalit is facing us. It is vital to exploit the opportunity created by the relative calm on the Gaza border."
According to the defense minister, Israel must act during the window of opportunity to advance the negotiations on Shalit. He expects the talks will not be easy or quick, and said the two sides will have to make painful decisions to conclude the deal.
Shaba Farms remain on the agenda
During their meeting in Paris yesterday, Olmert and Ban Ki-Moon also discussed the issue of the disputed Shaba Farms area. The prime minister stressed that the issue must be solved through direct negotiations between Israel and Lebanon, and called on Ban Ki-moon to facilitate such a dialogue.
Olmert said that UN Security Council Resolution 1701 of 2006 was a major achievement that brought about the strengthening of the Lebanese army's presence in the south of the country and pushed Hezbollah's main forces back from the Israeli border. He emphasized, however, that the resolution is no longer vigilantly enforced and said that huge numbers of weapons were still being smuggled from Syria to Lebanon - which he called "flagrant violation" of the resolution. Olmert called on UNIFIL to increase its supervision in the area, especially along the eastern border.