VIDEO - After six hours of heated debate, the cabinet on Sunday voted in favor of the proposed prisoner exchange deal with Hizbullah to secure the return of IDF captives Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser.
The motion was carried with a majority of 22 ministers, who sided with the official stance of the IDF and against that of the Mossad and Shin Bet.
After the proposal was ratified, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert gathered the families of the captives to his office and told them about the decision.
Prior to the vote, Olmert had told the cabinet that all the intelligence information in Israel's hands at present time indicates that both Goldwasser and Regev are dead, having either been killed during the abduction raid itself or shortly thereafter of their wounds.
Zvi Regev, Eldad's father, grew very emotional and told Olmert he "prays to God that we will be proven wrong" about the assessment. "I believe we will be proven wrong," he said, and Olmert moved to embrace him, saying he too hoped to be proven wrong.
After the rest of the family members left his office, Karnit Goldwasser, Ehud's wife, stayed behind. She went up to Olmert, shook his hand, and with red-rimmed eyes said: "I've been fighting for two years, and I feel that in the end, even if I won, what has it all been for? So I can shout 'Hooray, I'm a widow'?"
Olmert listened, and the tears coursed down his cheeks.
Officials: Deal could be over by mid-July
Diplomatic officials estimated later in the evening that the swap will likely take place in two week's time, even as early as 10 days from the vote. A date will be set after the German mediator receives the report on missing navigator Ron Arad.
The initial stage of the deal will entail an exchange of information, the second phase will include the actual prisoner exchange. The two stages will be separated by mere days but the third part of the deal, the release of the Palestinian prisoners, will take place a full month after the exchange and following an additional cabinet meeting.
Video courtesy of Infolive.tv
Prior to the cabinet vote Olmert urged his ministers to support the deal. "At the end of a long process, I have reached the conclusion that as the Israeli prime minister I must recommend that you approve the proposal which will bring this painful affair to an end – even at the painful price it requires us to pay," he said.
The prime minister added that the kidnapping in 2006 was likely aimed at bringing about the release of Samir Kuntar, as Hizbullah realized it would be unable to uphold the commitment it made in the previous exchange to provide Israel with information regarding MIA navigator Ron Arad.
Olmert said that although the report Israel had received regarding Arad was more detailed than its predecessors, , it offered no coherent answer as to the missing navigator's fate.
Zvi and Ofer Regev, Karnit and Shlomo Goldwasser today (Photo: AP)
“The objective and assumption leading us all this time has been that we are working to return live men. Today we know for certain that this is not the case. The report must be the focus of today’s discussion," he said.
The cabinet meeting was attended by Mossad Director Meir Dagan and Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin. During the meeting, defense officials told the ministers that approving the exchange could prompt future kidnappings and asked them to vote against it.
'A collective responsibility'
Olmert began the meeting by saying the deal would affect the lives of all Israelis in the coming years.
"Even people with the highest responsibility, like me, have the right and duty to have doubts, as this decision deals with the repercussions on our lives in the coming years."
The prime minister noted, "I admit that I had a lot of doubts due to the problem's multiple aspects, and
due to history and the different considerations.
"We have the utmost collective responsibility and must look the Regev, Goldwasser, Haran (family killed by Lebanese terrorist Samir Kuntar), (Ron) Arad and (Gilad) Shalit families in the eye – as well as our conscience."
He added that the government is faced with sensitive issues on a weekly basis, but that there was no doubt that the discussion on the captives had particular value, was extraordinarily sensitive and had deep national and moral ramifications.
Olmert said that the negotiations for the kidnapped soldiers' release were held for two years, according to UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which ended the Second Lebanon War. according to the prime minister, during this time Hizbullah attempted to use manipulations and take advantage of the Israeli society's special sensitivities.
Cabinet meeting (Photo: Gil Yohanan)
Industry, Trade and Labor Minister Eli Yishai said before the cabinet meeting that "this is a difficult decision… The question is whether Ron Arad could be brought back today, would we pay the price? We mustn’t wait 22 more years… In any event, this is a difficult decision."
Rallying in favor of deal
The ministers spoke as dozens of people rallied in the government building area in Jerusalem, calling on the ministers to approve the prisoner exchange deal with Hizbullah.
The rally was also attended by several of missing Israeli Air Force navigator Ron Arad's friends, who called on the cabinet not to forget the MIA airman and to continue in their efforts to find out what became of him.
Should the Regev-Goldwasser deal be pushed through, the government would be greenlighting the release of Samir Kuntar, who has long been considered Israel's strongest bargain chip for any information pertaining to Arad's fate.
Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser have been held captive by Hizbullah for 718 days.
Ynet reporters contributed to this report