JERUSALEM - Reflecting a divided, angst-ridden nation, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's Cabinet narrowly approved yesterday a prisoner swap with the Lebanese guerrilla group Hezbollah to return to Israel a businessman and the bodies of three soldiers.
The deal does not include Ron Arad, an aviator who was captured 17 years ago after he parachuted from his crippled bomber over southern Lebanon. His fate is unknown, and his omission from the deal forged by German mediators has driven a bitter debate in Israel for months.
Sharon lobbied hard for the deal, and it passed by only one vote, with 12 of the 23 ministers in favor. It split Sharon's dominant right-wing Likud Party and sparked a seven-hour debate that crossed political lines and divided intelligence agencies as ministers struggled to determine what price to pay to bring home its abducted citizens.
Opening the weekly Cabinet meeting, Sharon told his ministers that the deal "would save a living Israeli citizen. To leave him there would be to leave him to die."
In exchange, Israel is to release 400 Palestinian prisoners, most being held on minor offenses; several dozen Lebanese detainees; and others from Syria, Sudan, Morocco and Libya, along with at least two dozen bodies.
It remains unclear when and how the exchange is to take place, and there still are several pitfalls. Over the weekend, Hezbollah demanded the release of Samir Kantar, 41, who killed four Israelis in 1979. Israeli officials have rejected the request, even if it causes the deal to fall through.
The Cabinet's decision approves the framework of the agreement, but ministers warned yesterday that it could easily unravel. They pushed negotiators to find out more information about Arad before implementing the deal.
The deal includes the return of soldiers Benny Avraham, Adi Avitan and Omar Suwad, who were taken from northern Israel near the Lebanese border in October 2000 at the start of the Palestinian uprising. They have been declared dead as a result of Israeli intelligence reports.
The central debate is over Elhanan Tannenbaum, a businessman who apparently was lured into captivity three years ago when he made an illegal trip to an Arab country to forge a business deal.
Many Israelis are livid that the government would negotiate with a militant group for the return of a man who brought on his own trouble but leave behind a soldier who was captured doing his duty.
"The redemption of one very controversial prisoner has become the abandonment of another prisoner," Nahum Barnea, a columnist for the daily newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth, wrote in Friday's editions.
But ethicists say that opponents miss the point, that Israeli leaders are duty-bound to do everything they can to ensure the safe return of its citizens, regardless of the circumstances.
"We are interested in saving his life," said Asa Kasher, chairman of the philosophy and professional ethics department at Tel Aviv University. "Later on, when he is healthy, we can begin to be interested in what happened and even in punishing him. Right now, he is a citizen in the hands of a dangerous enemy. We have to bring him back as soon as possible."
Further angering supporters of Arad is that Israel, as part of the deal, is poised to release Mustafa Dirani, who participated in Arad's capture and, according to intelligence reports, sold him to Iran. Israeli commandos captured Dirani in 1994 and have held him as a bargaining chip for Arad's release.
Israeli officials now say that Dirani has no useful information in locating Arad, and that his release will not jeopardize the continuing negotiations and behind-the-scenes maneuvering to find the missing air force navigator.
Members of Arad's family, who met in the past few days with Sharon, were not persuaded. Arad's 18-year-old daughter, who was an infant when her father was captured, wrote an impassioned letter to Sharon that appeared in two major Israeli newspapers Friday.
"I hoped in my heart that you, the prime minister, did not leave wounded people behind," Yuval Arad wrote. "I cannot imagine how my life could have been with Daddy. I am sad that this is the path of the state of Israel. I still can hardly believe that the state of Israel is going to abandon my father."
But the father of one of the reportedly dead soldiers took his case to Sharon's office yesterday and joined in a rally to support the deal. Haim Avraham, a 54-year-old computer technician, wept as he discussed his son, Benny, whom he refuses to accept as dead, despite a ruling by Israel's chief rabbi.
"All these past three years for me and my family has been difficult," he said. "Now, all of our efforts are coming to an end with the decision of this government. If they can accept it, then my son will come home. I can understand how difficult it is to make this decision."
Avraham said he met two weeks ago with Sharon and with Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz on Saturday night. Mofaz initially was against the deal but was persuaded to change his vote after being lobbied by Sharon.
"We understand the efforts of the Arad family," Avraham said. "We are in the same place. But maybe the government is doing things for him or her that nobody knows about. They must understand our position, and we must understand theirs."
Avraham said his family is preparing a welcome-home ceremony, not a funeral, even though all evidence indicates that the younger Avraham and his two colleagues are dead. "We are preparing to welcome a live person," the father said. "The first thing I will do, I will salute him. He is my son, my small hero. After that, I will hug him."