German Mediator to Secure Hezbollah, Israel Signatures on Prisoner Swap Accord

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Israel and Hezbollah have a written agreement on a prisoner exchange that the cabinet will deliberate on Sunday and possible approve. If approved, Israel will sign the deal that will then be taken to Beirut by the German mediators for Hezbollah's signature.

Meanwhile, Israel will present Egyptian mediators in Cairo later today with new formulas that it hopes will result in progress in the case of the abducted IDF soldier Gilad Shalit, who is being held by Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

The cabinet will meet Sunday to hear a briefing and deliberate over the prisoner exchange deal Israel reached with Hezbollah through German mediation. Ofer Dekel, the official charged with the negotiations on the prisoners, will brief the ministers and respond to their questions.

So far the deal with Hezbollah is described in official Israeli circles as "a framework agreement."

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said that he believes "we will be able to reach the moment of decision with a clear conscience."

Speaking in the Knesset yesterday, Olmert said that "among decisions facing a prime minister, this is one of the most difficult. On balance, along with the boys and their families, are sadness, pain and values on which we have grown as a nation and a state. All these are stripped off in one hard and complex moment when a decision needs to be made and we will make it."

If the cabinet approves the accord, as it is currently inclined to do, Israel will sign an agreement that will be carried by German mediators to Beirut, where a Hezbollah representative will be asked to also sign it. The deal would then be carried out in a week or two.

The proposed agreement comprises more than 10 detailed sections, some known to the public but others still classified.

Israel is expected to transfer to Hezbollah four of its members captured during the Second Lebanon War, and the remains of eight Lebanese burried in Israel - and Samir Kuntar, a terrorist involved in a murderous raid on the northern coastal town of Nahariya in 1979.

In return, Hezbollah will transfer the two Israel Defense Forces reservists Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, abducted in a cross-border raid by Hezbollah in July 2006, which triggered the Second Lebanon War.

The radical Shi'ite group will also transfer a detailed report on the fate of downed air force navigator Ron Arad, captured in Lebanon in 1986.

Israeli political sources said yesterday that they fear that Hezbollah will up the ante, increasing its demands at the last minute. The same sources pointed out that because Hezbollah follows domestic conditions in Israel closely, the recent debate that the deal has sparked, with vocal opposition for the release of Kuntar, may lead the Lebanese group to cause its own delays to the process.

This concern was echoed yesterday in the Lebanese daily Al-Ahbar, with ties to Hezbollah, which warned in an editorial that unless the deal goes through in the coming days, Hezbollah would raise its price in the future.

One of the most vocal opponents of the deal, Mossad chief Meir Dagan, met Tuesday night with the father and brother of Eldad Regev. Dagan told them that Israel has intelligence information that the two captured soldiers are not alive.

Dagan told the Regev family that he opposed the release of Kuntar, "because he is part of a different deal - the one of Ron Arad. Everything depends on the report that [Hezbollah chief Hassan] Nasrallah will deliver and detail the efforts that have been done over the years in order to learn what befell Arad. If the report is sufficient in my eyes - I will consider changing my opinion."

The Regev family pressed Dagan on the intelligence report regarding his claims that the two prisoners are dead, but said that he refused to reveal his sources. Dagan insisted that even though no one has seen Regev and Goldwasser, the report is reliable.

In a meeting in Cairo today, Dekel will discuss with Egypt's Chief of Intelligence in Cairo, General Omar Suleiman, Israel's new proposals to further the deal on Shalit.

Dekel is expected to tell Suleiman that Israel expects Hamas to show greater flexibility regarding the list of prisoners it wants freed in exchange for Shalit.

Suleiman is scheduled to hold a similar meeting with Hamas representatives in Cairo next week.

Intensive indirect negotiations are planned at a later stage, where representatives of Israel and Hamas will be based in the same hotel, and the Egyptian mediators will shuttle between them with proposals and counter-proposals.

Meanwhile, following discussions last night between Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai and defense establishment officials, a decision was made not to open the crossings between Israel and the Gaza Strip today.

The crossings were opened on the day the agreement between Israel and Hamas went into effect last Thursday, but a decision was made to close them again Tuesday evening, following a violation of the cease-fire by Islamic militants firing Qassam rockets against Israel.

Officials expressed concern during the meeting that a continuation of the closure may result in a complete breakdown of the cease-fire agreement with Hamas.

However, following a reassessment of the security situation, it was decided to open the crossings over the weekend.

Today's security assessment will also determine whether extensive quantities of goods and supplies will be allowed into the Gaza Strip.

Security officials said yesterday that Israel would permit humanitarian cases to cross into Israel for medical assistance through the Erez crossing.

Yoav Stern and Shahar Ilan contributed to this article.

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