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Israel honors its war dead, agonizes over 4 still missing


JERUSALEM -- As Israelis paused in silence last night to honor their war dead, senior government officials were haunted and frustrated by their continuing inability to bring home -- or even get information about -- four Israeli servicemen missing in Lebanon.

The missing men were pivotal figures in the long Middle East hostage drama that, from the U.S. viewpoint, ended five months ago when Lebanese kidnappers freed their last American captive, Terry A. Anderson, held for nearly seven years.

From Israel's vantage, though, Mr. Anderson's release bore out their worst fear: that once American lives were no longer at stake, world interest would turn elsewhere and others caught up in the drama would be left behind.

As long as there is no word on the missing Israelis, officials here warn, they will not free any more of the roughly 275 Lebanese held prisoner by Israel and its client militia in southern Lebanon.

"It's all more of the same, with all of the same frustration and all of the pain," said Uri Lubrani, the government's chief hostage negotiator. "The fact is that we don't know any more than we did three or four months ago."

The servicemen's fate weighed heavily on Israelis last night as they began a 24-hour period of solemn tribute to the 17,000 soldiers who have died in the country's many wars since its founding in 1948, an event that will be celebrated in a second 24-hour period starting tonight.

No one here has anguished more in the hostage negotiations than the family of Capt. Ron Arad, an air force navigator who was shot down over Sidon on the Lebanese coast in 1986.

Yesterday was Captain Arad's 34th birthday, and of the four missing men he is the only one believed by officials with a high degree of confidence to be alive. The "working assumption" is that the navigator is in Iranian hands, Mr. Lubrani said, although adding that he did not know where.

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