The Israeli cabinet is to vote on Sunday on the prisoner exchange with Hizbollah, after a week in which Prime Minister Ehud Olmert twice changed his mind on the deal by which Israel is to receive two soldiers in return for handing over five Lebanese prisoners.
The prisoner swap seemed imminent last week after Israeli and Lebanese sources both confirmed that a deal had been brokered by the German government.
Under the terms of the deal, Israel would return to Lebanon convicted terror murderer, Samir Kuntar, four Hizbollah fighters and 10 bodies of members of the Shia movement.
In exchange, Israel would receive Eldad Regev and Udi Goldwasser, the two soldiers kidnapped two years ago whose capture sparked the second Lebanon War.
But at the beginning of this week, Prime Minister Olmert asked the IDF’s chief rabbi, Avi Ronsky, to examine the intelligence material and to decide whether the two soldiers should be pronounced dead.
A forensic report prepared after the two soldiers were captured concluded that they had been mortally wounded in the attack on their border patrol.
Further intelligence also indicated that the two were not alive, but the IDF does not usually acknowledge that its soldiers are dead without receiving conclusive evidence. This case is even more complex, since Sergeant Goldwasser is married, necessitating a special rabbinical ruling that will release his wife Karnit from her status as agunah.
Even before the government’s special co-ordinator, Ofer Dekel, had finalised the deal, the chiefs of the Mossad and Shin-Bet intelligence services, Meir Dagan and Yuval Diskin, advised Mr Olmert to announce that the soldiers were dead and refuse to exchange live prisoners for them, but the prime minister ruled in favour of the deal.
This week though, Mr Olmert relented to the pressure of his intelligence chiefs and ordered the IDF to re-examine whether the two soldiers could be pronounced dead.
The volte face surprised the soldiers’ families, who were convinced that in a matter of days, the suspense of two years would come to an end. They immediately attacked the decision and the sympathetic response to the families’ protest convinced the Prime Minister to change his mind again.
“We really had no idea why Olmert zig-zagged in this way all of a sudden,” a close friend of the families told the JC. “To us it reeks of political opportunism and spin-doctoring.”
The IDF was ordered to freeze its deliberations and the deal is now to be brought to the cabinet on Sunday where it is expected to be approved by a majority of the ministers.