JERUSALEM – Israel's Cabinet on Tuesday overwhelmingly approved an emotionally charged deal to trade a Lebanese militant convicted of killing three people for two Israeli soldiers captured by Hezbollah guerrillas and believed to be dead.
The swap is due to take place on Wednesday under U.N. supervision at a seaside border crossing.
Hezbollah has given no evidence that Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev are alive, and has not allowed the Red Cross to see them since they were captured in a July 2006 cross-border raid. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told his Cabinet last month that Israel believes the men did not survive.
The deal, approved in a 22-3 vote, reflects the country's commitment to its soldiers that they will never be left behind in the field. It also will close a painful chapter from Israel's inconclusive war against Hezbollah, which was sparked by the soldiers' capture.
Zvi Regev, Eldad's father, said he was holding out hope his son might still be alive.
"I really hope this nightmare will end tomorrow," he told Israel Radio. "We will accept whatever will be. We need to be strong and accept it for better or for worse."
Critics have said that by trading bodies for prisoners, Israel is giving militants little incentive to keep captured soldiers alive. And although polls suggest a large majority of Israelis support the exchange, many Israelis were anguished at the prospect that Samir Kantar would go free.
Kantar is serving multiple life terms for the 1979 killing of an Israeli policeman, a civilian and his 4-year-old daughter. Israel says Kantar, who was 16 at the time, brutally beat the girl to death by bashing her head with a rifle. He denies this, saying the girl was killed in the crossfire.
The child's terrified mother accidentally smothered her 2-year-old daughter in a desperate effort to keep her from crying out while they hid in a crawl space in their apartment.
On Tuesday evening, Israeli President Shimon Peres is expected to sign a document pardoning Kantar.
"It's not a happy choice," Peres said before the Cabinet vote. "On one hand, we have the most terrible murderer. On the other hand, we have our commitment to our boys who were sent to fight for their country. It is our moral duty and our heartfelt wish to see them come back."
Cabinet Minister Isaac Herzog, who voted with the majority, called the decision to swap Kantar "a tormenting one."
"Clearly we opted for a resolution that fulfills our prime rule since the creation of the state of Israel, and this is to bring back our sons home, despite the toll," he told The Associated Press.
Construction Minister Zeev Boim was one of the three Cabinet members to oppose the deal. He said he was afraid the swap would make it harder for Israel to win the release of a third Israeli soldier, held by Gaza militants and believed to be alive.
Palestinian gunmen affiliated with Gaza's ruling Hamas group seized Sgt. Gilad Schalit three weeks before Hezbollah captured the two soldiers from Israel's northern border.
"No one should be surprised if Hamas will now raise the price for freeing him," Boim said. "There is some basis to assessments that there is no need to keep Israeli soldiers alive in captivity because Israel will pay a high price even for bodies."
This would not be the first time that Israel has paid a high price to return its troops. One lopsided deal that came under especially harsh criticism traded three captured soldiers for 1,150 Lebanese and Palestinian prisoners in 1985. Some of these freed prisoners played important roles in a Palestinian uprising against Israel that began two years later. Other deals have included live prisoners for dead Israelis.
A U.N.-appointed German official mediated the latest agreement, which the Cabinet tentatively approved June 29.
Final authorization was put off until Israel received a report from Hezbollah on what happened to an Israeli airman who disappeared in Lebanon 22 years ago. On Monday, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert accused Hezbollah of having submitted an "absolutely unsatisfactory" report, but government officials had said earlier that the report would not be a deal-breaker.
Over the weekend, Hezbollah transferred photographs, diary excerpts and an 80-page report that claimed Arad died but did not give a full account of his fate. Arad, then 28, parachuted out of his malfunctioning fighter jet on a mission over Lebanon in October 1986. A Lebanese militant group captured him, but reports that he was later transferred to Hezbollah and then to Iran have never been confirmed.
In addition to handing over Kantar, Israel also has agreed to release four other Lebanese prisoners and the bodies of 199 Lebanese and Palestinian fighters killed in clashes over the years.
The Lebanese prisoners will not be handed over until the soldiers are positively identified, either at the crossing or in Jerusalem, if DNA testing is deemed necessary.
Red Cross officials met with Kantar and the other Lebanese prisoners on Tuesday, and received their approval to return home.