Tuesday, June 24, 2008
Israel's spymasters concluded 3 weeks ago that troops held by Hezbollah are dead
Last update - 16:42 24/06/2008
By Amos Harel, Yuval Azoulay, Jack Khoury, Barak Ravid and Eli Ashkenazi
Three weeks have passed since Israel's intelligence agencies came to the conclusion that the two Israeli soldiers seized by Hezbollah in July 2006 are dead.
An order by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert this week to have the soldiers formally declared as killed in action, has lent weight to allegations by sources involved in the indirect negotiations with Hezbollah that the move is aimed at foiling a prospective prisoner swap.
Officials said as recently as last week that a prisoner exchange was close to conclusion, and suggested that the swap could take place soon.
But security sources revealed Tuesday that Israel's intelligence agencies on June 3 submitted their conclusions that the two soldiers - Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser - are dead.
Two days ago, Olmert ordered the military's chief rabbi, Brigadier General Avihai Ronsky, to find out whether abducted soldiers Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev could formally be declared killed in action, fallen soldiers whose place of burial was unknown. The process involves assessment of intelligence information and rulings of Jewish law.
Olmert's order came almost three weeks after that conclusion was reached by the panel of chiefs of intelligence services, Military Intelligence, the Mossad, and the Shin Bet. Sources said each service conducted an independent examination, which led to a collective conclusion.
It remains unclear why the decision was delayed. However, the span of time appears to lend credence to suspicions that the goal of the move to declare the soldiers dead is to scuttle the deal, as sources involved in the negotiations have charged.
Security sources said no unequivocal intelligence information was acquired over the last several months that supported their findings, which were primarily based on existing information.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak said on Tuesday that Israeli attempts to bring back the soldiers would not cease, even if they were declared dead.
"We have a responsibility to bring the abducted soldiers home even they're dead. The process [to declare them dead], even if it comes to fruition, isn't supposed to in any way stop the talks on the deal to bring them home," Barak said during a visit to Moshav Netiv Ha'asara in the western Negev.
The soldiers' families lashed out against the move and demanded that Olmert quickly bring the deal to a cabinet vote.
Over the past few days, after an agreement with Hezbollah seemed close, a delay ensued for reasons not fully known. But on Monday it became clear that it was Olmert who was holding back and that a process was beginning to declare the two soldiers dead.
Defense officials said that even if Ronsky determines that Goldwasser and Regev are dead, Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi will still support the prisoner swap as an obligation to the families and a relatively "cheap" deal for Israel because there is no obligation to release Palestinian prisoners.
Miki Goldwasser, the mother of Ehud Goldwasser, said: "Why now, when the deal is done and there's nothing better, is somebody is trying to torpedo it, and Olmert for his own reasons, political or otherwise, isn't in a hurry to approve it?"
Benny Regev, Eldad's brother, said: "Unfortunately it looks like the deal isn't going to happen. It's no secret that at the base of this deal is the claim that their [the soldiers'] being alive is not certain. Still, we think most of the ministers would have supported it."
Karnit Goldwasser, Ehud Goldwasser's wife, said: "We had to beg the ministers to support the deal. At the end of the day we got a call that the file is with the military rabbi. This is a humiliating day for Israel."
Olmert is said to be delaying the deal because of objections by Mossad head Meir Dagan and Shin Ben security service head Yuval Diskin to an agreement that would see the release of Lebanese prisoner Samir Kuntar, who is serving multiple prison terms for the 1979 murders of four Israelis, without knowing what Israel will hear in return on the fate of missing Israel Air Force navigator Ron Arad.
Kuntar remained in Israel's hands as a bargaining chip after the release of Elhanan Tennenbaum in 2004. An arrangement seemed to be in the making recently for Hezbollah to deliver a detailed report on Arad. Israel now wants to know the nature of that report, and on Diskin and Dagan's recommendation, Olmert wants to hold back the deal until this point is clarified.
In exchange for the report, Israel will reportedly give Hezbollah information on the fate of four Lebanese diplomats who disappeared in Lebanon in 1982, and were apparently murdered by Christian Phalangists.
Another issue that has resurfaced over the past few days involves Palestinian prisoners. Although no official word has reached the media, prisoners negotiator Ofer Dekel told the Goldwasser and Regev families last week that Israel is expected to agree to release a few dozen Palestinian prisoners of its choosing, to be presented as a gesture to United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, represented by German negotiator Gerhard Konrad.
However, sources close to the deal said Monday that this issue was not a major hindrance to the deal, and that the main issue was over the information about Arad. The sources said it was likely that Olmert would delay approval of the deal and prevent it coming up for debate in the cabinet.
"This is very serious," Ehud Goldwasser's father Shlomo said. "It means Olmert's playing his cards close to his chest and not sharing information with the ministers."
Olmert is traveling to Sharm el-Sheikh on Tuesday to meet with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. The two leaders will discuss the renewal of mediation efforts by Egypt on a deal with Hamas to free captured IDF soldier Gilad Shalit. Ehud Goldwasser