Israelis bury dead from '06 war as Olmert trial proceeds

HAIFA, Israel — They came by the thousands to say goodbye: those who loved them, those who fought with them and those who knew them only after they became unexpected symbols of Israel's volatile place in modern Middle East history.

On Thursday, Israel's defense minister joined the relatives of Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev in burying the two soldiers whom Hezbollah fighters had captured and killed more than two years ago in a cross-border raid that ignited a costly, monthlong war.

The twinned military funerals provided some measure of closure for the families, who'd waited more than two years to find out whether the soldiers were alive or dead.

But the deal that led to their return has irritated still-healing emotional wounds for other Israelis, who still wonder whether the 2006 war — and the decision to free a notorious killer and four other prisoners in exchange for Regev's and Goldwasser's bodies — was worth it.

Israelis who came out for the funeral also were left wondering whether the man who launched the war, embattled Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, soon would face his political demise, as his attorneys launched their courtroom counteroffensive in a deepening political-corruption investigation.

"This is not the reception we wanted," Defense Minister Ehud Barak said at Regev's funeral. "We all dreamed — the families and the country — that we would embrace Udi and Eldad with warmth and love after two sad years. (But) tears of pain accompany them home and the heart is heavy.

"We were willing to pay a price — even that which appeared illogical — for their return."

By chance, Regev and Goldwasser were buried on the same day that attorneys for Olmert launched a legal counteroffensive designed to salvage his political career.

The attorneys spent hours in a stuffy Jerusalem courtroom, where they sought methodically to discredit Morris Talansky, a quirky New York businessman and the star witness in a still-deepening corruption investigation.

Talansky told Israeli prosecutors that he's given Olmert tens of thousands of dollars in cash over the years to pay for upscale hotel rooms, overseas vacations and struggling political campaigns.

In a rare open-court deposition, Olmert's attorneys started their cross-examination Thursday by trying to cast Talansky as an unreliable witness.

But the state investigation already has expanded beyond Talansky. Now prosecutors are looking into allegations that the prime minister double-billed charities for his expenses when he traveled to speak to them in recent years in order to collect extra money for vacations.

Olmert has denied that he did anything illegal, and has vowed to step down if he's indicted.

The case has cast a pall not only over Olmert's shaky coalition government but also over Israel's sense of itself.

"I feel a crisis of values going on," said Ora Lefer-Mintz, whose son was killed by a Palestinian in a drive-by shooting at a West Bank checkpoint in 2001. "Just look at the corruption. I feel like we have no leadership."

Olmert's popularity plummeted in the waning days of the 2006 war and has never really recovered. He was castigated for his handling of the war and recently has been embroiled in the unfolding corruption investigation.

"He defines the contours of the state, and that's why it's troubling for people no matter what they think of Olmert," said Asher Arian, a political science professor at the University of Haifa. "It's about morality and war and peace."

On Thursday, though, Israelis found themselves more troubled by the celebrations in Lebanon for Samir Kuntar, the most notorious of the five prisoners whom Israel freed as part of the deal.

After delivering a defiant speech Wednesday night in Beirut, Kuntar returned to his Druze village, where he was treated as a returning hero.

The images shocked many Israelis, who couldn't fathom how Lebanon could honor a man convicted of killing an Israeli man in front of his daughter and then smashing the small girl's head against a beachside boulder until she died.

Israeli President Shimon Peres said Lebanon wouldn't redeem itself until it saw the shame in honoring Kuntar.

"Where does the moral call reside?" Peres said. "With those who welcome a terrible murderer? With a nation lighting memorial candles for two of its bravest soldiers, who fell defending their home?"

At Regev's funeral, his brother Ofer suggested that the ordeal had given Israel a clear picture of the adversary it faces in Lebanon.

"We thought we were dealing with an enemy like us, who wanted to raise a family, grow a garden," he told the mourners. "But we found we have an enemy who is anything but like us."

The soul-searching in Israel is likely to continue as Olmert tries to secure the release of Gilad Shalit, the young Israeli soldier whom Gaza Strip militants captured about three weeks before Hezbollah attacked Regev and Goldwasser while they were patrolling the border with Lebanon.

If and when Israel decides what price to pay to free Shalit, Israel again will face questions about itself and its place in the Middle East.

"The defense minister made a point that returning the soldiers is part of our values," Lefer-Mintz said. "Maybe this will start us toward rebuilding these values."

(Churgin is a McClatchy special correspondent. Nissenbaum reported from Jerusalem.)