JERUSALEM -- Now and again, Tami Arad says, she catches herself just as she is about to slip into the past tense when talking about her husband, Ron.
While lapses like that are unsettling, she says, they matter little compared with the hopes and fears that collide each day over the larger question of whether there is also a future tense for Ron Arad.
"They tell me that now maybe something will happen, maybe he will come back," Tami Arad said yesterday. "But they also tell me to be careful, that this is just the first step and there may be more to come."
That seems guaranteed as the Middle East hostage problem moves along uncertainly, its solution hinging a great deal on the fate of Capt. Ron Arad of the Israeli Air Force and six other Israeli servicemen who have been missing in Lebanon for years.
How the crisis will be settled -- if it is settled -- remains unclear. But the Israelis are now being seen as the key, and the rough outlines of a likely deal are considered relatively simple even if it may prove relentlessly complicated to bring them about:
A group holding Western hostages in Lebanon says it will let its captives go but only if Palestinian prisoners in Israel and Europe are set free. In turn, Israel says it is ready to go along but first it wants an accounting of its missing men.
"We have never opened champagne and we have never started shiva," Yonah Baumel, the father of Zachary Baumel, told the Israeli newspaper Maariv. He referred to the traditional Jewish mourning period of seven days.
"We have learned how to cope with many kinds of information about the hostages and prisoners, sometimes contradictory," he said.
"Now we have reached a moment of truth in which we cannot content ourselves with information. We also need proof."
That demand is shared by Tami Arad, a slender, long-haired woman of 30, who was married for four years before her husband disappeared. In a way, she acknowledges, she is fortunate compared with the other families because she had word from her husband once, in 1987.
Their daughter, Yuval, is now 6 and about to enter the first grade. "Other children sometimes say to her that her father is not coming back," Tami Arad said, "but she is also strong and says she doesn't care what they say. Ron will come back."
"She calls him Ron," she added. "How can she call him Papa? She doesn't know him."