JERUSALEM (JTA) — Two years after they disappeared into Lebanese captivity, Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev are returning to Israel.
But it’s unlikely to be a happy homecoming for the army reservists.
According to Israeli assessments, Goldwasser and Regev died as a result of the Hezbollah border ambush in which they were captured and which triggered the Second Lebanon War.
By a vote of 22-3, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s Cabinet on Sunday approved a German-mediated swap deal under which Goldwasser and Regev would be returned soon.
In exchange, Israel will free five jailed Lebanese terrorists, chief among them Samir Kuntar, who is serving a life sentence for a bloody 1979 attack on the northern town of Nahariya. It also will release the remains of dozens of slain Lebanese.
Freeing Kuntar will effectively be the Olmert government’s declaration that Israel is giving up on Ron Arad, an airman missing since he bailed out over Lebanon in 1986. Kuntar had long been billed as a “bargaining chip” for Arad’s return.
“This is an issue of the highest moral order,” Olmert said in broadcast remarks before the five-hour Cabinet debate.
The heads of Israel’s Mossad and Shin Bet intelligence services had argued against surrendering prisoners should it transpire that Goldwasser and Regev did not survive the July 12, 2006 ambush in which Hezbollah took them into Lebanon. The guerrilla group has refused to provide any word on their condition.
But while Olmert for the first time publicly endorsed the spymasters’ assessment that the soldiers should be considered “killed in action,” he disagreed with the view that Israel must only hand over the bodies of slain Lebanese in the trade.
“From our earliest days we are taught that we do not leave men behind wounded in the battlefield, and that we do not leave soldiers in captivity without attempting to rescue them with all our abilities and powers,” Olmert said, according to a transcript of the Cabinet session.
“A nation which concedes in order to ensure life, save its wounded, bring home its dead, is a nation which creates unbreakable bonds of mutual obligation.”
Arad remains a mystery, Olmert said. Hezbollah has said repeatedly it knows nothing of his whereabouts and, as part of the swap, is required to present a report on its efforts to find out what happened to the airman.
“On the other hand, we know what happened to Udi and Eldad,” Olmert said.
Hezbollah, which called the 2006 war its “divine victory” despite its expulsion from southern Lebanon and the devastation wreaked on Beirut, claimed the vote in Jerusalem as another coup.
“All Arabs and Muslims are experiencing historic moments,” exulted an anchor on the Iranian-backed Shiite movement’s Al-Manar television station. Kuntar’s brother, Bassam, described the deal as a “vindication for the resistance.”
Hezbollah originally had demanded the release not only of Lebanese prisoners but of hundreds of other Arabs held in Israeli jails.
The deal is to be implemented within two weeks to allow for Israeli President Shimon Peres to formally pardon Kuntar and for the public to lodge any High Court petitions against the release.
Protests are expected to be muted. Smadar Haran, who lost a husband and 4-year-old daughter to Kuntar’s rifle, held a news conference to say she would support the swap.
“Samir Kuntar is not my private prisoner,” she said. “He’s the nation’s prisoner.”
Arad’s relatives, for their part, have been reticent. Though they canceled a planned meeting with Olmert at which he wanted to explain his government’s decision-making, few expected them to mount a campaign against bringing Goldwasser and Regev home.
The missing reservists’ families welcomed the Cabinet vote, though they declined to accept that their loved ones were dead.
Goldwasser’s wife, Karnit, voiced hope for closure.
“I’m so very tired. I’m drained from within,” she told reporters. “I need a couple of days just to digest this all, to figure out how it’s going to end.”
The swap finds Olmert at a low ebb of his administration, beset by a corruption scandal and trying to prod peacemaking with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas while preserving a Gaza Strip truce so another soldier, Gilad Shalit, can be recovered from Hamas.
Returning Goldwasser and Regev, the prime minister hinted, will be a dress rehearsal for the prisoner releases Israel will have to approve allowing Shalit — who is known to be alive — to come home after more than two years in captivity.
“I hope that the Israeli public will know to draw the necessary conclusion from this so that it will be more prepared and mature for the next time, which already lies in wait for us,” Olmert told his Cabinet.
“Sooner or later, we will be back here in order to be tormented yet again.”