Hostage release arouses Israel's fears Officials sense missing soldiers will be forgotten in negotiations

November 20, 1991|By Robert Ruby | Robert Ruby,Jerusalem Bureau of The Sun

JERUSALEM -- While bringing relief to Britain and the United States, the latest hostage release from Lebanon has aroused anxiety in Israel that it could end up the one party not getting back its own men.

For Israel, the freeing of Terry Waite and Thomas Sutherland suggested a deal going wrong. Officials have begun to worry that all remaining Western captives might be released while Israel's own missing soldiers remain unaccounted for, forcing it to try to negotiate another swap on its own.

"I imagine such a thing is possible," Defense Minister Moshe Arens said in an interview on Israel army radio. But he added that officials "have a basis" for believing that the United Nations was still seeking the release of everyone, including four missing Israelis.

Foreign Minister David Levy also alluded to the anxiety by asking that the United States and other Western countries refrain from "discrimination" -- that is, that they work as hard for news of the Israelis as for the return of the Westerners.

Officials here are worried that the following chain of events could occur: Hostage-takers supported by Iran release all Western hostages, thereby meeting the demands of the West. The United States and other countries then lose interest in the hostage issue, thereby leaving Israel isolated and with its own demands unmet.

Hezbollah, a Shiite Muslim militia, is believed to be the umbrella group for the various organizations holding Western hostages. If Hezbollah is willing to let the Westerners go, that is thought to reflect Iran's need for economic and technical aid from the West.

If Hezbollah is slower to give news of the missing Israelis, that is said to reflect Iran's unabated public hostility toward Israel.

It may also demonstrate an effort by militia members to ensure their own survival. Hezbollah's best insurance against a large-scale attack by Israel into southern Lebanon has been uncertainty about the hostages' fate. No one was willing to risk a major military action because of the chance that hostages might be killed.

If and when the last hostage is released, that insurance against attack is presumably gone. Hezbollah thus has reason to hold onto any Israelis -- dead or alive -- as long as possible. "The Hezbollah guys know that as soon as they give those guys up, they are dead," said a U.N. official in the region. "They have known this for six years. The hostages have been their shield."

Israel is holding about 300 Lebanese prisoners and has sought to trade them for information about its missing soldiers. Officials say they believe that at least one of the Israelis is alive, air force navigator Ron Arad, whose plane was shot down over Lebanon in 1986.

Jerusalem also wants information about three other Israelis missing in Lebanon since a tank battle against Syrian forces in 1982.

Israel, meanwhile, holds Sheik Abdel Karim Obeid, a Shiite cleric abducted from Lebanon in 1989. Israeli officials say that Sheik Obeid was a leader of Hezbollah and allege that he had a role in the kidnapping of U.S. Army Lt. Col. William R. Higgins in 1988. Colonel Higgins, assigned to a U.N. observer force, was later killed.

An additional 66 Lebanese prisoners have been released by Israel since September. In exchange, Israel was given the remains of one missing Israeli soldier and given proof that two others were dead.

Officials now are sounding frustrated at having no takers for a second trade of the same sort.

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