Israel to decide on prisoner swap with Lebanon

Israel Materials 15 June 2008 23:56 (UTC +04:00)

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has concluded that Israel should swap the perpetrator of a notorious guerrilla attack for two Israeli soldiers held in Lebanon since 2006, a senior government official confirmed on Sunday, the AP reported.

The official's comments buttressed recent signals from Israel and the Lebanese Hezbollah guerrilla group that a deal was in the works to trade Samir Kantar, a Lebanese PLO operative, for Israeli soldiers Uri Goldwasser and Eldad Regev.

Hezbollah seized Regev and Goldwasser in a July 2006 cross-border raid that sparked a monthlong war with Israel. They are thought to have been badly wounded during their capture, and Hezbollah has offered no proof they are alive.

No timetable for a prisoner swap was disclosed.

Kantar is serving multiple life sentences for killing four Israelis in a 1979 attack on an apartment building in northern Israel. Among the dead were a 28-year-old man and his 4-year-old daughter, whose head Kantar repeatedly smashed against a rock before crushing her skull with a rifle butt.

Her mother, who was hiding in a crawl space, accidentally smothered her other daughter while trying to silence the 2-year-old's cries.

Israel had hoped Kantar would be a bargaining chip to wrest information from Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas about the fate of a missing Israeli navigator captured in Lebanon in 1986.

But Olmert and other senior Israeli leaders have concluded Hezbollah has no new information about navigator Ron Arad, and is willing to swap Kantar for the two Israeli soldiers, the government official said. He spoke on condition of anonymity because no deal has been finalized.

Olmert plans to meet with the Arad family on Tuesday to inform them about the impending deal, the official said.

Arad was forced to parachute out of his fighter jet on a mission over Lebanon in October 1986 after one of his aircraft's bombs apparently malfunctioned. The jet's pilot was rescued by Israeli forces, but Arad was captured by guerrillas from the Shiite Amal organization. There have been reports that Arad later was transferred to Hezbollah and then to Iran, but no reliable evidence of his fate has ever surfaced.

Hezbollah's leader, Hassan Nasrallah, said last year that he believed Arad was dead.

Because of the brutal nature of Kantar's attack and his lack of remorse, his release would be highly controversial in Israel.

But the swap would end a difficult chapter, and bringing home the two captured soldiers would offer the embattled Olmert a rare political victory. The two soldiers have come to symbolize what is widely seen here as a failed war - launched, in part, with the declared aim of bringing them home. Olmert saw his own popularity plunge after the war, and is now fighting for his political survival after a U.S. businessman accused him of taking envelopes stuffed with hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash.

In all, Israel is believed to be holding seven Lebanese prisoners, including Kantar. Four others would be swapped for the soldiers in addition to Kantar, the government official said.

Hezbollah had no comment Sunday. But there have been recent signs from the Lebanese group and Israel that a prisoner exchange could be in the works. Nasrallah predicted last month that Israel would soon release prisoners it is holding, and two weeks ago, his Islamic group unexpectedly turned over body parts of Israeli soldiers killed in the 2006 war.

A senior Israeli military official confirmed at the time that a deal was in the making.

Even if the deal does go through, it is unlikely to ease the animosity between Israel and the Iranian-backed Hezbollah, which remains committed to the destruction of the Jewish state.