Copyright 2003 Jerusalem Post
HEADLINE: Cabinet votes 12:11 in favor of prisoner exchange
BYLINE: HERB KEINON
With a slim 1-vote majority, the cabinet passed Sunday afternoon the decision to go ahead with the Hizbullah prisoner exchange.
The resolution was passed in a meeting that was described by one minister as very emotionally charged.
The resolution, which did not specify the names of the prisoners to be released, did set out general guidelines that include the following:
- Approximately 400 prisoners and detainees will be released to Judea, Samaria and Gaza. This group will not include anybody with "blood on their hands."
- Several dozen prisoners without "blood on their hands" from Lebanon, Syria, Morocco, Sudan and Libya will be released to their respective countries, with the exception of "several Lebanese prisoners who were involved in incidents in Southern Lebanon, in which IDF soldiers were killed."
Israel will also provide information regarding land-mine fields and will transfer to Lebanon dozens of Lebanese bodies as well as information regarding fallen soldiers.
Regarding Ron Arad, the resolution said that Israel reiterates its commitment to do its utmost "and never give up" until Arad is returned.
The resolution stipulates that before this agreement is implemented, the Prime Minister and Defense Minister will examine whether or not it is possible to acquire any more information on Ron Arad.
Ministers who voted for: Prime Minister Ariel Sharon; Finance Minister Benyamin Netanyahu; Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz; Industry and Trade Minister Ehud Olmert; Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom; Minister-without-Portfolio Gideon Ezra; Minister-without-portfolio Meir Sheetrit; Minister of Health Dan Naveh; Minister of Environment Yehudit Naot; Minister of Science and Technology Eliezer Sandberg; Minister of National Infrastructure Yosef Paritzky; Minister of Internal Security Tzahi Hanegbi.
Ministers who voted against: Minister of Education Limor Livnat; Minister of Social Affairs Zevulun Orlev; Minister of Tourism Benny Elon; Minister without Portfolio Uzi Landau; Minister of Housing and Construction Effie Eitam; Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development Yisrael Katz; Minister of Justice Tommy Lapid; Minister of Transportation Avigdor Lieberman; Minister of Immigration Absorption Tzippi Livni; Minister of Internal Affairs Avraham Poraz; Minister of Jerusalem Affairs Natan Sharansky
"To save a life"
"We all know what the central issue at this government meeting is. This is a very big decision. During the weekend I spoke with most of the ministers, except for those who were overseas, and I made it clear to them the gravity of the decision," PM Sharon said at the start of Sunday morning's Cabinet session.
"There is no reason to explain in words the importance of the decision the Cabinet must make today," Sharon added. Referring to Elhanan Tannenbaum, the Israeli reserve colonel abducted by the Hizbullah, Sharon encouraged ministers to support the deal. "We have to support this deal because we can save a living Israeli citizen. Leaving him [Tannenbaum] there would be abandoning him to his death," Sharon said.
Sharon also told ministers that he had spoken with Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz on Saturday night and had accepted his recommendations to add "certain appendixes" to the hostage swap deal which would support extra efforts to find information on missing IAF navigator Ron Arad.
The Yediot Ahronot daily said Mofaz had threatened to oppose the deal if it didn't include information on Arad's fate, infuriating Sharon. In his comments, Sharon took the rare step of denying reports that he had threatened to fire Mofaz or that Mofaz had tried to resign.
Spy chiefs warn against the deal
The ministers were been briefed by Shin Bet head Avi Dichter and Mossad head Meir Dagan.
Dichter and the head of the IDF's military intelligence research directorate told Cabinet ministers that in their assessments, Hizbullah chief Nasrallah is not able to get any information on Ron Arad.
The intelligence chiefs said that any information regarding Arad's fate could only be found in Teheran. According to Israel Radio, neither the Mossad not the Shin Bet chiefs support the prisoner exchange deal.
Mossad chief Meir Dagan came out against the deal, warning that the exchange may lead to more kidnappings.
Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Moshe Ya'alon and OC Intelligence Maj.-Gen. Aharon Ze'evi (Farkash) are in favor of the deal, and warned of the ramifications of not going through with the agreement.
Chief Israeli prisoner swap negotiator Ilan Biran told the Cabinet that Israel had failed in its efforts to find any information regarding Ron Arad's fate over the last few years. Biran said that new avenues need to be pursued in Arad's case. Biran added that Obeid and Dirani have not proved useful in obtaining information on the missing IAF navigator.
Netanyahu supported the deal after an amendment forbidding Israel to release prisoners with "Israeli civilian blood on their hands" was added to the agreement.
Minister of National Infrastructure Yosef Paritzky said that what changed his mind from initially voting "no" was [Shin Bet chief Avi] Dichter's position that the deal would not have much of an effect on the Palestinian street. Dichter is against the deal mostly because of the respect it will give Hizbullah in Lebanon. Paritzsky also said that Dichter was "very adamant in this, he promised this, and put all his professional weight behind his assessment."
On leaving the meeting, Paritzky turned to [MIA] Benny Avraham's father and told him not to hold anything against those ministers who voted against the deal. "Understand one thing whoever votes against in there, still loves you, as is still behind you," Partizky said.
Livnat told Israel Radio that on the basis of past prisoner exchanges, and what she called the tendencies for released Arab prisoners to resume terror activity, she would not be supporting the deal.
"The blood of Ron Arad is on Dirani's hands," Livnat said in a statement, explaining her no vote. "The release of hundreds of prisoners will be interpreted by the Iranians and Hizbullah as Israeli weakness and will lead to more attacks, terror and kidnappings," Livnat said.
"On this difficult question of morality, values and conscience I vote no," wrote Livnat, who missed the Cabinet meeting because of her trip abroad.
Livnat added that after reading sections of the Winograd Commission Report on missing airman Ron Arad, she came to the conclusion that it would not be ethical to abandon him.
Elon said Israel did not have to make deals with terrorist organizations. "We are state not a terror organization that deals with other terror organizations."
When asked by an Al-Jazeera reporter if Israel could trust Hizbullah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, Elon answered in the negative. "If I have a chance to destroy that organization, and him [Nasrallah], that would be the most wonderful thing for me and for the [MIAs] families and for the State of Israel," Elon said.
Talking about Israel's dealing with the Hizbullah, Elon said that if the deal would be carried out between the State of Israel and the government of Lebanon, "then it would be a different story."
Upon leaving the Cabinet discussion Sunday afternoon he told (MIA) Benny Avraham's sister, who was outside the building with family and supporters, that he was "sorry it came to this," but he could not support the deal that would bring her brother's body home.
"The message that will be given by a 'yes' vote is clear, that kidnapping really pays," said Uzi Landau, a Cabinet minister without portfolio. "I shall vote against."
Diaspora Affairs Minister Natan Sharansky said, "Sometimes there is a price that is forbidden to pay, and the country has to make difficult decision." Sharansky spent nine years as a political prisoner in the Soviet Union.
"Ron was alive in 2001 and held in Iran. Nothing has changed since then"
Also Sunday, Winograd report committee member Meir Gilboa said on Israel Radio Sunday morning that according to the report he helped compose for the government, Ron Arad was alive three years ago and was being held in an Iranian.
"Since then as far as I can tell nothing has changed. He is still being held in an Iranian jail. Iran doesn't want to release Arad because in their eyes he is an Israeli warrior who attacked Arab targets," Gilboa said.
Arad bailed out over southern Lebanon on October 16, 1986, and was taken captive by fighters of the Amal Shi'ite militia. The Winograd report came to the assessment, based on all the available evidence, that the evidence that Arad is still alive overrides the possibility that he is dead.
Ron Arad's daughter Yuval said Sunday that some of her family members and friends have given up their struggle to find information on Ron. "They cannot bear the thought of Dirani going free."
"Today we're starting my father's funeral procession. But unlike other processions, this one won't last a day or two. This one will last for the rest of our lives," Yuval added.
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