Let These People Go Free

August 14, 1991

What Americans require is the release of all hostages. That is the only way that Iran, which controls to some extent the organizations holding them, and Syria, which controls the land where they are held, can prove they are out of the business of sponsoring terrorism.

What should the countries whose nationals are captive give in return for their release? Nothing. Because giving something -- say, the release of a terrorist convicted in Europe of planting a bomb -- justifies hostage-taking and encourages more.

Where does that leave Israel? In a very special place. Special not because the terrorist groups hate it but because Israel reacted to the hostage crisis differently from the Western powers. Except for Ronald Reagan's abortive arms-for-hostages deal, this country did not bargain for its nationals. Nor did Britain or even France. Israel did. Israel takes full responsibility for protection of its citizens, and when seven Israeli soldiers were held by terrorist groups, Israel and its client militia, the South Lebanon Army, captured counter-hostages.

Israeli officials don't call these prisoners "hostages," but "assets" for bargaining. Israel holds a reported 375, whom it is prepared to exchange for seven Israelis alive or dead. The most important is Sheik Abdul Karim Obeid, spiritual head of the Iranian-backed Hezbollah terrorist organization in the south of Lebanon, whom Israeli commandos kidnapped. Israel is content that it knows Sheik Obeid to have planned acts of terrorism. The holy man's Hezbollah brothers have let him rot.

In the buzz of Lebanon, one of the messages was that Western hostages could be released for Sheik Obeid, with not a word about Israelis. But Sheik Obeid was always returnable, along with 374 compatriots, and the whole Arab world always knew how reasonable the price was. The deal could have been made any time and should be made now.

Israel holds Palestinians, rightly and wrongly, some for terrorism, others for agitation. These should not figure in the swaps for hostages. The release of most should come from the dynamics of a peace process between Israel and the Palestinians that is now within sight. No doubt an agreement emerging from that process would be accompanied by amnesties for more. But no pressure should be put on Israel to reward the hostage-takers of Lebanon this way.

There had been suggestions coming out of Lebanon that the whole hostage crisis can be cleared up by the end of the year. That would not satisfy Americans that Syria and Iran had renounced their sponsorship of terrorism. The hostage crisis can be cleared up in a week. All that's required is to set the hostages free.

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