Hostage's release puts Israel under conflicting pressures


JERUSALEM -- As its longtime foes win gratitude for the release of Western hostages, Israel is caught between pressure from abroad to free Arab prisoners of its own and pressure at home to hold out for the return of missing Israeli soldiers.

To try to balance the pressures, Israeli officials are declaring their eagerness to do whatever they can to promote the release of the remaining Western hostages -- as long as Israel can benefit from the deal.

The release yesterday of American Edward Tracy in Lebanon highlighted Israel's dilemma:

For the second time in four days, Syria and Iran appeared as heroes receiving the thanks of the West. Each played a role in Mr. Tracy's release, as they had in Thursday's release of a British hostage, John McCarthy. And each used the opportunity to assert that Israel would be responsible for any delays in the release of others.

Israel, meanwhile, was in danger of appearing obstinate. Officials here insist that before the government agrees to the release of any of the 350 to 400 Arab prisoners captured in Lebanon, it must learn the fate and whereabouts of seven Israeli soldiers who have been missing in Lebanon since 1982.

"If they want the release of those Lebanese held by us, there is one price they will have to pay: the release of our people and our missing," said Benyamin Netanyahu, Israel's deputy foreign minister.

His statement is a small part of an all-out regional contest. The winner is whichever government sounds the most sincere in calling for the release of all hostages or is seen to be doing the most.

The valuable prize is thanks from the United States. U.S. support has become all-important because of the Bush administration's role as chief sponsor of the Mideast peace talks that are scheduled to convene in October.

Israel and Syria have an identical interest in appearing highly supportive of U.S. policy, with each country hoping its cooperation will influence the ground rules for the talks.

It is hard to exaggerate the anxiety generated in Israel whenever Syria appears to have a diplomatic success. A Western leader's offering Syria a word of praise is regarded by Israeli officials as a setback, and the praise for Syria's role in the freeing of hostages smacks of a potentially major loss.

"The moment you have some totalitarian dictator who does something nice, that immediately earns him points and makes the West think he's about to change," said Dore Gold, a specialist on U.S.-Israel relations at Tel Aviv University. "Israel, when it does what it's supposed to do, doesn't make news. It's something government ministers get used to."

Whatever the pressures from abroad, Israel seems unlikely to soften its demand for the return of its soldiers or of their remains.

Of all the issues in Israel, the question of how to deal with missing soldiers is virtually the only one on which there is no dissent.

Politicians on the right and left, who may bitterly dispute everything else, unite on the need to take whatever steps are considered necessary for the soldiers' return.

"With this, you get to one of the fundamentals of the relationship between the Israeli army and Israeli society," Mr. Gold said. "Everybody in this country is a soldier, has a father who is a soldier, a brother who is a soldier.

"When you're talking about Israelis missing in action, the government will do anything to get them back."

Danny Naveh, an aide to Defense Minister Moshe Arens, said official policy was not about to change. Only after information is received about the missing Israelis would the government enter negotiations, he said.

"These are not civilians who went into Lebanon against their own government's advice, like some of the Western hostages," Mr. Naveh said, referring to U.S. policy against its citizens' being in Lebanon that existed when some hostages were taken, including Mr. Tracy. "These are Israeli soldiers, and it is the government's duty to bring about their release."

Israel already has gone to the extreme of kidnapping a Shiite Muslim cleric, Sheik Abdel Karim Obeid, in hopes that the abduction would force the captors of some of the missing Israelis to agree to a trade.

Sheik Obeid, a leader of the Hezbollah (Party of God) militia, was abducted from his home in south Lebanon by Israeli commandoes in July 1989. Israeli officials say Hezbollah either has or knows the whereabouts of at least two of the seven missing Israelis.

So far the hoped-for swap has not taken place. But Mr. Netanyahu said Sheik Obeid remained Israel's "trump card" and would not be released until all seven Israelis were accounted for.

All but a few dozen of the prisoners Israeli forces captured in Lebanon are nominally under the control of the South Lebanon Army, or SLA, a predominantly Christian militia equipped and trained by Israel and operating in south Lebanon.

The SLA offers Israel a possible way to compromise on its pledge to release none of its prisoners before getting back all Israelis.

If behind-the-scenes negotiations required it, the SLA could announce that it had decided on its own to release some of its prisoners -- as it did last December, when it released about 40 Arab detainees, but without any apparent result. As happened then, Israel could maintain that its own policy had not changed.

Israel and its enemies already have a long history of trading prisoners in arrangements usually negotiated by the International Committee of the Red Cross.

In some cases the apparent imbalance between what Israel was willing to give up and what it got in return reflects the national obsession over the safety of Israeli soldiers:

* In 1983, Israel freed 4,600 Lebanese and Palestinian prisoners captured during the Lebanon war. In exchange, six Israeli soldiers were released by the Palestine Liberation Organization.

* In 1984, Israel traded 291 Syrian soldiers captured during the Lebanon war for six Israeli soldiers held by Syria.

* In 1985, Israel freed 1,150 Palestinians, Lebanese and other prisoners for three soldiers held by the pro-Syrian Popular Front ... TC for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command.

How many of the seven missing Israelis are alive is an especially sensitive subject. Israeli officials would neither confirm nor deny reports published in 1989 that the two soldiers captured by Hezbollah were known to be dead.

The two, Yosef Fink and Rahamin Alsheikh, disappeared in February 1986 after a gun battle in southern Lebanon.

Defense ministry officials said that the soldiers had been riding in a three-vehicle army convoy that was attacked by Hezbollah forces and that their vehicle was later found soaked with blood.

"One of them is known to have been wounded, the other less so," a senior official said recently. "The signs there were unpleasant in the extreme."

Another of the seven, Samir Assad, was captured by a PLO faction in 1983 and was reported to have been killed.

But the Israelis want these individuals back dead or alive. At the very least they demand concrete evidence of their whereabouts.

Without that much, Jerusalem is unlikely to give in to Western pressure to release the Arabs it holds, no matter how great the pressure may be.

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