IDF Chief: It Is Our Duty to Bring the Hostages Home

PM says cabinet to vote on Hezbollah swap Sunday; ministers likely to back deal, Olmert stance uncertain.

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Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi said on Wednesday that it was Israel's duty to bring the captive soldiers back home and voiced hoped that they would soon be returned.

"I would like to emphasize, as the commander of the Israel Defense Forces, that it is our moral and long-time obligation to do everything in our power to bring back all our soldiers that have been captured by the enemy while performing their duties as fighters and protectors of the state of Israel," Ashkenazi said, referring to Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev who were captured by Hezbollah in July 2006, and Gilad Shalit who was kidnapped in Gaza the month before.

Ashkenazi added that it was the duty of the army as well as the state to secure the captives' release, amid turmoil in the political echelon regarding a prisoner swap deal with Hezbollah.

"It is the duty of the Israeli society and it is our duty as an army," he went on to say, "I am full of hope that it won't be long before we have the privilege of seeing them among us again."

Meanwhile Wednesday, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert confirmed that the cabinet would vote on the prisoner exchange deal with Hezbollah during its weekly meeting on Sunday, saying that returning abducted soldiers to Israel was the state's top priority.

"I have decided to bring the issue to the cabinet for a decision at its next meeting on Sunday," Olmert told the Knesset during a special session, called after a late-night deal was consummated to stave off a coalition crisis.

Meanwhile, a Lebanese newspaper editor apparently familiar with Hezbollah's thinking warned Wednesday that if the prisoner swap with Israel is not consummated soon, the Shi'ite organization would increase its asking price for the two Israeli soldiers it has held captive since July 2006.

Olmert had spoken of the imminent vote in a meeting with the wife of one of the two Israeli reservists abducted by Hezbollah in July 2006. The prime minister said he has not yet decided whether or not he supports the swap.

The families of abducted soldiers Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev had been pressuring Olmert to bring the matter to a cabinet vote, and plan to convince the ministers to support the deal.

"I haven't yet decided what my position is on the issue of the prisoner exchange deal with Hezbollah," the prime minister told Karnit Goldwasser, Ehud Goldwasser's wife, in a nearly hour-long meeting at the Prime Minister's Residence in Jerusalem on Tuesday. "We're in the middle of the talks and are trying to clarify most of the details. When the agreement is ready, I will decide and bring it to the cabinet, apparently on Sunday."

Karnit Goldwasser said she hopes the prime minister will carry through on his promise to bring the prisoner swap to a vote.

"In my eyes, this is the first relevant opportunity to bring Udi and Eldad home," she said.

It appears that a majority of ministers would vote in favor of the swap if it is brought to the cabinet for a vote, although the composition of the cabinet could change drastically if Olmert dismisses the Labor ministers for voting to disperse the Knesset.

If they remain in the cabinet, the Labor ministers are expected to vote in favor of the prisoner swap, as are the Pensioner ministers. Kadima ministers are split on the issue and Shas is not expected to vote against it. So far, the government has never approved a prisoner swap opposed by the prime minister.

Israel will release some Palestinians but only after the rest of the deal takes place and Goldwasser and Regev are returned to Israel. The release of the Palestinians will be described as a humanitarian gesture.

However, several ministers said this week that they cannot form an educated opinion on the prisoner swap because they have yet to be officially informed of the details. Olmert said he was interested in providing them with all the necessary information.

The deal, which is essentially closed and has been put into writing, states that Israel is supposed to release four Hezbollah militants who were taken captive during the Second Lebanon War; Samir Kuntar, who has been imprisoned since 1979, when he killed the members of the Haran family in Nahariya; and the remains of eight Lebanese citizens buried in Israel.

According to the agreement - reached with the help of German mediator Gerhard Konrad, who was working on behalf of the United Nations secretary general, Israel will also release several Palestinians serving prison sentences here, and Israel can be the one to determine the names and number of Palestinians who will be released.

Political and security sources said Israel has informed Hezbollah, via the mediator, that it will not release Palestinians responsible for Israeli deaths.

The chief military rabbi began deliberations this week on whether Goldwasser and Regev can be declared killed in action. He will judge based on intelligence information and Jewish law, a move criticized by the soldiers' families, but his determination will likely be made only after the cabinet meeting.

Although sources close to the talks with Hezbollah over a prisoner swap say the move means the deal is off, Olmert associates said the prime minister has repeatedly said he has not made a final decision. They said the decision to allow the chief military rabbi to assess the situation is meant only "to minimize the question marks to a minimum."

"We don't want Hezbollah to torpedo the deal," an Olmert associate said. "That's not true. We just want the ministers to have as much information as possible."

Defense Minister Ehud Barak spoke in favor of the prisoner exchange on Tuesday.

"We have a responsibility to bring the captives home, even if they are dead," said Barak. "The [rabbinic] declaration process that has begun, even if it develops fully, shouldn't in any way stop the deal."

A committee of intelligence officials including the heads of the Mossad, Shin Bet security service and Military Intelligence has reached the conclusion that Goldwasser and Regev are dead. The assessment was based on an examination of intelligence information that was analyzed separately by each of the intelligence organizations.