Government approves agreement on release of Israeli soldiers in Lebanon

(Communicated by the Cabinet Secretariat)

At the weekly Cabinet meeting today (Sunday), 29 June 2008:

1. Ministers discussed the outline of a possible deal to return the soldiers who were abducted by Hizbullah.

Ofer Dekel, who has been appointed by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to be responsible for dealing with the return of the captives, presented the Cabinet with the proposed outline for a deal and detailed the various stages, steps and contacts related to it.  IDF Chief-of-Staff Lt.-Gen. Gaby Ashkenazi, GOC Intelligence Maj.-Gen. Amos Yedlin, ISA Director Yuval Diskin and Mossad Director Meir Dagan presented the Cabinet with the positions of the security establishment. Maj.-Gen. Ilan Biran (ret.), who has been dealing with the captives and MIA issue for seven years, and National Security Council Chairman Danny Arditi, presented their positions on the issue in general as well as their opinions on the proposed deal. 

Prime Minister Olmert began the discussion as follows:

"Today’s discussion is exceptional when compared with the topics raised in Government meetings every week. A political or party-based decision is not what is asked of anyone, but rather: a personal, moral decision. The Government is being asked to, and each of its members must, disassociate themselves from the public discourse, from the headlines in the media, from the personal appeals and deal with our personal and collective soul searching as citizens of this country.

I wish to be absolutely clear: our approach to the release of living soldiers must be different than our approach to bringing back soldiers who are no longer alive. The facts were presented to you and have been known for quite some time:

A. As far as we know – two soldiers, Udi Goldwasser and Eldad Regev – are no longer alive.

B. As far as we know, they were killed during the kidnapping or died from their wounds soon after the incident.

C. It is highly probable that the kidnapping which led to their deaths was, at the outset, based on the Hizbullah’s desire to bring about the release of Sami Kuntar. This is with the knowledge that they do not wish to, or cannot uphold the commitment provided in the earlier agreement regarding the imparting of details on Ron Arad.

In this context, I wish to point out:

There is a fundamental difference between the report we have about the fates of Udi and Eldad compared with the fate of Ron Arad. It has been over 20 years since Ron’s disappearance – we have no certain information about what happened to him at all. The report handed over does not improve this situation, even if according to the opinion, based on a superficial reading by the mediator, this report is more detailed than previous reports. It does not provide us with an unequivocal answer.

On the other hand – we know what happened to Udi and Eldad. The decision to bring the matter to a religious resolution – was born out of the numerous reports that have accumulated about them.

This decision began with Ofer Dekel, who is charged with dealing with this matter. It passed investigatory processes by our Intelligence bodies, a special committee comprised of senior officials from Intelligence bodies dealt with it and reached a unanimous conclusion. It was adopted by the Committee of the Heads of the Services, as well as by the Chief of General Staff, and was transferred to the Chief Military Rabbi to be dealt with as is customary.

It is possible that were it not for this initiative, the details of which were known to both the mediator and the Hizbullah, the negotiations would have continued and perhaps would have ended differently. I do not know.

However: the question, one of the relevant questions for us now, is whether or not it is right that we adopt the outline of the deal, the details of which were, in large part, already known; or accept the religious process which will end with the declaration that Udi and Eldad are fallen soldiers. However, if we accept this outline, doubt will continue to gnaw away, including the possibility of being cut off from them for many, many years, as happened in the case of Ron Arad.

This drama, it should be remembered, unlike claims made in the Ron Arad case, occupied us while we were fighting in Lebanon and the entire time since then.  The insistence on Resolution 1701, which includes detailed reference to the return of the soldiers.

  • The demand to immediately implement the UN Secretary General’s mechanism in order to lead to an operation that would assist in rescuing the kidnapped soldiers.
  • The activation of a mediator on behalf of the UN Secretary General.
  • The appointment of a special mediator on my behalf, Ofer Dekel, who did not rest from his intensive, unceasing and unprecedented efforts in this regard.
  • Countless meetings in various places around the world – in order to set in motion every factor that could assist in a solution to this issue.
  • Meetings with family members with willingness unparalleled in any other country in the world facing the problem of missing or kidnapped soldiers.

The Arad issue is part of the decision today, but in the case we are discussing, unlike the Ron Arad case, there is not, nor can there be for anyone, a basis for the claim that every effort is not being made relentlessly in order to bring about a solution. And it should be said in all honesty: these were the shortest negotiations among all previous negotiations.

The goal and the assumption according to which we have been acting the whole time was that we are acting to bring back people who are still alive. Today we know for certain that there is no such chance for this. This knowledge must be the basis on which we conduct the discussion today.

I said at the outset, and I reiterate now, what is on the agenda is not the negotiations in the South about which we spoke earlier in this discussion. The discussion is being held on the question of what we should do with the data which is known to us, what the significance is of making a positive decision or rejecting it, and if there is the possibility of continuing the negotiations, with regard to the families, with regard to our commitment to returning the soldiers, with regard to the future influence on similar situations in which we will be forced to bargain, including the Shalit case.

In this regard: there is no escape from dealing with the fundamental and essential issue of what the obligation is for a country which sends its soldiers into battle, and they are taken captive while in its service.

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 power.

However, over the years we also learned that this obligation has limits. A country must have limits even when dealing with the price of freedom for soldiers, and the price for their very lives.

We never thought that the question of cost could be separated from the total context which is open to discussion, from the repercussions possible in the future, and primarily from the fact that we live in a region in which the rules of the game and the basic human patterns of behavior according to which we act – are not shared in our environment.

For several years, alongside the emotional argument which breaks out and is, at times, exaggerated, alongside the completely understood emotion of the families of the kidnapped soldiers who naturally and justifiably win the sympathy of a large part of the Israeli public, there is a gnawing doubt that this same expression of our obligation, at almost any cost, is an incentive to continue this pattern of kidnappings, of blackmail, of undermining our internal morale, of an attempt to forcibly erode our deterrence capability, and eventually our ability to withstand the challenges which we will continue to face, against the enmity, the extreme fanaticism and the cruelty of our neighbors.

More than once I heard, even from public, security and military authorities, and also from our highest political echelons – that boundaries must be defined, limits must be determined and we must stand by them under all circumstances, as difficult as they may be.

And I also heard, always when we need to make a decision, that this process will be undertaken the next time if, Heaven forbid, there is one.

We always felt the permeating doubt and tremendous damage caused by the compromise, and we always avoid the desire to deal with the obligation to withstand the test; and doubt lingers, even when we promised that next time we would act differently, that in fact, next time as well – we will return to the patterns we already determined, and to which we have accustomed our enemies.

Has the time not arrived to make a change? Is now not the time, because we know that these are not soldiers who are still alive, but unfortunately fallen soldiers – to say here and now, so far and no further? One thing is certain to me – we cannot avoid determining organized, agreed-upon and firm procedures to deal with this issue in the future, and we will do so soon.

There is nothing in these statements to cast even a shadow of doubt on the amazing work done by Ofer Dekel. Were it not for his persistence and determination in carrying out his mission, and at the highest level of priority, our present situation would certainly be much worse.

However, even Ofer reached the conclusion months ago and until recently, that the soldiers should be declared dead and he jumpstarted the process, with my approval, but in the military-security framework, and in accordance with considerations and information that he had in his possession before the decision.

I know deep in my heart what the mood is outside the walls of this building, and I do not dismiss the headlines and news reports.

Unlike the others, I sat with the families a number of times, and I looked not only into their eyes, but I also felt their longing, and the tremendous emptiness that accompanied them in their lives.

As I did with many bereaved families, when I met them and witnessed their pain, and accept with love their cries of pain, even when it is directed at me. I have no one else to pass these cries onto, but can only hear them and absorb all that is a part of them. And later – to live with my pain. However, also with my conscience.

In a number of cases, I shared my opinion with the family members, and I did so with a profound sense of belief that in my role as Prime Minister who must see the total reality, and that which will be, there are things I cannot do or agree to – even if the family members see things differently, and this is inevitable. It is not easy. It is much easier to be cut off without looking straight into the eyes of the families and saying that the responsibility I bear obligates me to see things from a different perspective.

We all bear the responsibility here, it does not end in the obligation to empathize with the pain of the families and their hearts’ desire, but it is also to be able to say things and act in a manner which is obligated by what the future places on us. It was always so with every prime minister – and it is so for me as well. And I am not settling an account with anyone who served before me and made decisions in his time and place.

Now I must make a decision. All I said up to this point – is a summary of my beliefs and feelings. However, I am not free to absolve myself of the general responsibility for the resolution of this meeting today – and its repercussions. This perhaps expresses the surfeit of responsibility borne by a prime minister unlike that of the ministers, each according to his role.

Nine days ago, Ofer Dekel, who is charged with the negotiations for the return of the kidnapped soldiers, presented the final outline according to which the deal was formulated. With every fiber of my being, I felt that this outline did not satisfy my expectations and hopes. On the other hand – I was tormented by the knowledge that at the stage we had reached, the choice again is not between going through with this deal and formulating a different, more appropriate deal. If I thought there was a chance to formulate a different, more appropriate, more balanced deal at this stage, I would not hesitate to tell you and the entire people of Israel so, as well as the families of the kidnapped soldiers – that there is no escape from making a further effort and eventually reaching another result, even at the cost of more exhausting and painful waiting.

I asked myself: is it possible? I tried to think of any other possible outline, of any crack through which it would be possible to change the need for a decision regarding this outline, out of a belief that it will be possible to formulate a different outline. I carried in my heart the deep frustration and sorrow what occurred during the Ron Arad case, and of the profound disappointment in ourselves that we did not learn from the past to do that which may, may have been possible then in order to find him and know with certainty what his fate was. And I reached the conclusion that it was not advisable for the State of Israel to follow this path once again.

Some may say that reaching this stage in which we were left with the cruel choice of receiving bodies or of, Heaven forbid, losing any connection with their fate for many years, was not necessary and was not obvious.

It is very possible. This is certainly an issue that should be studied and analyzed, and we will need to learn the inevitable lessons from it, but for now, I believe that this is the only realistic choice, and in this choice – the moral weight tends towards the painful compromise over the decisive refusal.

I listened attentively to the brave, honest and clear analysis of the Head of the General Security Services, Yuval Diskin, and of the Head of the Mossad, Meir Dagan. I admire these two men very much for their contributions, wisdom and unparalleled experience. I heard too the incisive words of Ilan Biran, who dealt with the Ron Arad issue untiringly for seven years. My heart tells me they see a realistic, genuine and inevitable picture. However, I believe that the circumstances we have reached, perhaps not in our favor – in which our kidnapped dead are within our grasp – we missed the deadline to change the terms which should be undertaken according to the analysis they presented.

Let us not delude ourselves. The strength of the pain over returning our dead – will not be less than the feeling of affront from the celebrations that will be held by the opposing side. 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. Sooner or later, we will be back here in order to be tormented yet again. I pray that our public discourse will not disparage the cost of this deal two days after it is completed, when we all understand its full significance for the future.

I hope that the satisfaction that comes from the resolution of the doubts of the Regev and Goldwasser families will grant us the peace of mind and perhaps the comfort that we must take this step.

I will not conclude my remarks without saying something to the people of Israel: I know that some of the public and its spokespeople, who until last night made its demand from every stage and microphone that there is a need to agree to this deal because its costs are not intolerable, that it was time to end this painful affair – will suddenly allege weakness, concessions, a lack of determination on the part of the Government when faced with the sounds of jubilation from the squares of Beirut.

Our agony, the cries of pain which were heard, are not an expression of weakness – but rather of unparalleled moral strength.

More than once, world leaders with whom I spoke about this situation and about Gilad Shalit and Ron Arad and our missing soldiers – expressed their amazement about the emotional burden which Israeli society places on itself in this regard.

I recoil from the aggressive voices which accompany our public discourse in these matters, and at times miss the restraint and internal discipline shown by other peoples.

However, we are not like them, and probably never will be. A nation which is tormented by the fate of one man is a strong nation with stamina and a deterrence capability and endless determination. 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.

If we succeed in defining boundaries, lower the tone of our discourse and show inflexibility in our internal existence, and continue to fight for our lives, defend our soldiers and take care of our kidnapped soldiers – we will project the genuine strength – which is wondrous in its uniqueness – which is part of our nation.

Therefore, at the end of this long process, the essence of which I presented to you today, I reached the conclusion as Prime Minister of Israel that I must recommend to you to approve the proposed resolution which will bring an end to this painful episode – even at the painful price it costs us."

Following the discussion, the Government decided, by a vote of 22-3, as follows:

"A. The abducted soldiers Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev will be returned to Israel, a report on the disappearance of Ron Arad (in continuation of Government decision #978 from 9 November 2003, will be delivered to Israel and remains from the Second Lebanon War will also be received.

In exchange for the return of the abducted soldiers, the State of Israel will release prisoners and detainees being held in its prison facilities, and will transfer bodies and information, as follows:

i) Prisoner Samir Kuntar and four illegal Lebanese fighters being held by Israel will be released to Lebanon.

ii) The bodies of dozens of infiltrators and terrorists, including eight members of Hizbullah, will be delivered to Lebanon.

iii) Information on the four missing Iranian diplomats will be delivered to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

iv) Following the implementation of the deal, Palestinian prisoners will be released. The number and identities of the prisoners will be determined at the sole discretion of the State of Israel.

B. Mr. Ofer Dekel, the official responsible for the negotiations on behalf of Prime Minister Olmert, will continue the process of implementing the negotiations according to the principles detailed in this decision.

C. The Government will hold an additional discussion in order to complete and implement the agreement according to the principles detailed in this decision.

D. The Government of Israel reiterates and confirms its obligation to exhaust all that is required in order to obtain credible and solid information that will shed light on the fate of Israel Air Force navigator Capt. Ron Arad.

E. At the same time, the Government of Israel reiterates and confirms its commitment to continue acting for the release of Cpl. Gilad Shalit.

F. The Government of Israel will not slacken in its efforts to locate and bring home the missing and those Israeli soldiers whose resting place is unknown.”

2. Prime Minister Olmert, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Director of the Defense Ministry Security-Diplomatic Bureau Amos Gilad officials updated ministers on the situation regarding the calm on the Gaza Strip border and on the efforts that have been – and are being – made for the release of Gilad Shalit.  Amos Gilad noted that in his contacts in Egypt on the issue, it has been determined that Gilad Shalit’s release is at the top of the agenda and that intensive contacts for his release will continue.

3. The Cabinet defined the authority of the committee of inquiry, appointed by Agriculture and rural Development Minister Shalom Simhon, into the operation of the veterinary services.

4. The Cabinet approved the appointment of Yair Geller as National War on Drugs Authority.

5. The Cabinet discussed extending the declaration of a special situation on the home front and in the area adjacent to the Gaza Strip and decided to request that the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee approve such an extension until 31 October 2008. 

6. The Cabinet approved draft amendments to the 2008 Security Service Law and authorized the Ministerial Committee on Legislation and Law Enforcement to submit the final draft for Knesset approval.

7. The Cabinet approved additional draft amendments to the 2008 Security Service Law – regarding the placing of IDF veterans for service in select Israel Police units – and authorized the Ministerial Committee on Legislation and Law Enforcement to submit the final draft for Knesset approval.

8. The Cabinet approved additional draft amendments to the 2008 Security Service Law – regarding the transfer of responsibility for security prisoners from the IDF to the Israel Prison Service – and authorized the Ministerial Committee on Legislation and Law Enforcement to submit the final draft for Knesset approval. 

9. Pursuant to Article 26a of the 1986 Security Service Law, the Cabinet decided to request that the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee approve the 2008 Security Service Order (Service Recognized for Security Purposes).  The Cabinet approved additional draft amendments to the 2008 Security Service Law – regarding the placing of IDF veterans for service in select Israel Police units – and authorized the Ministerial Committee on Legislation and Law Enforcement to submit the final draft for Knesset approval.