Minister Opposed to Deal: Swap Victory for Hezbollah

Justice Minister: Prisoner exchange with Hezbollah is a terrible deal, the price is too high.

The three cabinet ministers who on Sunday voted against a prisoner exchange deal with Hezbollah, said that the swap was a victory for the Lebanon-based guerilla organization.

Earlier Sunday the cabinet approved the prisoner swap with Hezbollah in which two Israeli soldiers seized by the Lebanese guerilla group in 2006 and believed dead, would be returned, in exchange for Lebanese terrorist Samir Kuntar.

Kuntar has been jailed in Israel since perpetrating a terror attack in Nahariya in 1979 during which four Israelis were brutally killed.

Twenty two ministers voted in favor of the agreement. Justice Minister Daniel Friedmann, Housing Minister Ze'ev Boim and Finance Minister Ronni Bar-On opposed.

"After Kuntar is released, who will prevent the release of Marwan Barghouti?" asked Bar-On after the cabinet session. Barghouti is Israel's most prominent Palestinian prisoner, who is serving five life sentences for spearheading a series of terror operations.

Bar-On added that "anyone who says that Samir Kuntar is not a bargaining chip in talks with Hezbollah on the topic of [missing Israeli airman] Ron Arad is wrong."

"A government promise was made to the Arad family, and it mustn't be broken," Bar-On continued, referring to Israel's ongoing efforts to obtain information on the fate of the Israel Air Force navigator who has not been seen since his plane went down over Lebanon in 1986.

Bar-On also voiced his opposition to the release of Palestinian prisoners in a prisoner exchange deal, saying that doing so would "give [Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan] Nasrallah patronage over the Palestinian cause as well, and that is dangerous in my view."

"In addition, [releasing Palestinian prisoners] would raise the ransom in the Shalit deal," Bar-On concluded, referring to an additional hostage, IDF soldier Gilad Shalit, who has been held captive in the Gaza Strip by Palestinian militants since June 2006. Talks are currently underway regarding a separate prisoner swap that would recover Shalit in exchange for hundreds of Palestinian prisoners.

Friedmann said that "approving the deal sends a message of weakness," adding that "this is a terrible deal. The price is too high. We mustn't release Samir Kuntar because that would be an enormous victory for Hezbollah."

Boim said that "preventing terror is of the utmost importance - no less than that of returning the [abducted] soldiers." He also warned that Hezbollah would view the deal as a victory. "If Nasrallah rejoices, that will be burned into the Arab psyche," he said.

Boim also voiced his objection to the release of Kuntar, saying that "a lowly despicable terrorist, whose stock we elevated in 2004, will become a symbol. We mustn't underestimate symbols - they are the cause of rivers of bloodshed throughout human history."

Sunday's cabinet decision cleared the way for the German-mediated exchange with Hezbollah, possibly within days. Under the deal, Israel would free five Lebanese guerrillas, including Kuntar, who has been serving 4 life sentences in Israel since 1979, and repatriate the remains of around 10 slain border infiltrators.

Sources in Israel said the swap would probably take place by July 12, when Hezbollah is planning a victory ceremony to mark the second anniversary of the Second Lebanon War.

Earlier Sunday, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert urged the cabinet ministers to vote in favor of the prisoner exchange deal, declaring for the first time that he knew for certain that the two reservists abducted by Hezbollah during a cross-border raid on July 12, 2006, are dead.

"There is a fundamental difference between the knowledge we have regarding the fate of Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser and the fate of Ron Arad," Olmert said.

"For more than 20 years after Arad's disappearance, we have not had confirmed information on what happened to him," he said.

"The assumption all this time was that theses people were alive. Today we know for certain that there is no chance of that, and that knowledge must be the basis for today's decision," Olmert said during the debate.

Goldwasser's father, Shlomo, said he was not surprised by the declaration, but wanted proof the soldiers were dead.

"There have been assessments for a long time," he said. "But none of this matters because it is not fact. ... They were alive when they kidnapped and no one has provided us with evidence to the contrary."

Until the meeting, it had not been clear which way Olmert would vote on the deal. The proposal to release prisoners in exchange for bodies has come under fire by intelligence services and other officials.

Ministers were briefed by security service heads and by Ofer Dekel, the official appointed by Olmert to negotiate the release of the two reservists held by Hezbollah and Shalit, who has been held in Gaza since June 2006.

While the cabinet was initially expected to approve the deal, an official present at the meeting said Israel's intelligence chiefs were urging ministers to vote against the swap.

"The defense officials are not easing up and it seems some of the ministers will be convinced and oppose the deal," the official.

Opening the cabinet meeting Sunday, the prime minister said he had deliberated "deeply" on the proposed deal. "There is no doubt that today's discussion has special weight and is exceptionally sensitive in terms of its national and moral implications," he said. "My conclusions are not free of doubts and dilemmas."