JERUSALEM -- The release of a British hostage in Lebanon has renewed the possibility of a complex prisoner exchange involving hundreds of Lebanese Muslims held by Israel and seven Israeli soldiers missing in Lebanon.
The captors of the Western hos tages repeatedly have linked their eventual release with the fate of the Lebanese imprisoned by Israel, including a prominent Shiite Muslim cleric kidnapped by Israeli paratroopers in 1989. Their fate is linked in turn with the whereabouts of the missing Israelis.
British journalist John McCarthy, who was freed yesterday in Beirut, said he believed that the demand to settle all the problems at once was made in a letter his captors, the Islamic Jihad, gave him for delivery to United Nations Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar.
Israeli officials welcomed Mr. McCarthy's release as evidence that a larger, all-inclusive deal might be possible, involving Israel, Syria, Iran and pro-Iranian militias.
"If the deal does include our people, we will be happy to be involved," Uri Lubrani, in charge of Israel's policy in Lebanon, told army radio. What would be unacceptable, officials here say, is an arrangement that leaves people out.
Mr. McCarthy's reappearance was a reminder to the parties in volved that the prospect of Mideast peace talks gives them an extra incentive to free hostages and any other prisoners.
All the potential players -- and especially Israel and Syria -- have an interest in earning the gratitude of the United States in advance of any peace talks. As a result, there is a thinly disguised competition to demonstrate good will and an ability to influence events.
There also is a precedent for a large-scale exchange. In June 1985, Lebanese gunmen holding a hijacked TWA airliner in Beirut refused to release 40 American passengers unless Israel freed 700 Shiite Muslims.
While denying there was any deal, Israel released the Muslims in several stages, beginning before the release of the passengers and ending after they were set free.
Since the early 1980s, Israel and militias in Lebanon have taken prisoners as part of a simmering war for control of southern Lebanon. While each side sought to use the prisoners to force jTC concessions from the other, the result has been a stalemate.
The Westerners kidnapped in Lebanon were caught in the middle. With Israel, the militias and Western countries rejecting one another's terms, they were in effect sentenced to indefinite imprisonment.
According to Mr. Lubrani, Israel holds about 375 Lebanese Shiites. Most are imprisoned at el Khayam in the Israeli-occupied "security zone" in southern Lebanon and are in the custody of the South Lebanon Army, an Israeli-backed militia.
Israel's most famous prisoner is Sheik Abdel Karim Obeid, a Muslim cleric abducted from his south Lebanon home in July 1989. Sheik Obeid, a leader of the pro-Iranian militia called Hezbollah, was kidnapped to give Israel leverage in trying to win the return of missing Israelis.
Since Sheik Obeid's capture, Israeli officials have said only that he is being held somewhere in Israel.
Two of the missing Israelis, or their remains, are said to be in Hezbollah's control. They were abducted in 1986 in southern Lebanon, after a clash in which one was known to have been seriously wounded.
Three other soldiers disappeared in 1982 in a battle between an Israeli tank unit and a Syrian force, and officials say they believe all three may be alive.
A sixth Israeli is an air force navigator whose plane was shot down over Lebanon in 1986. Israeli officials say he eventually passed into the hands of Iran's Revolutionary Guards. The seventh Israeli was reported to have been killed in a clash in Lebanon with Palestinians in 1983, and Israel demands the return of his remains.