Copyright  The Jerusalem Post
The Jerusalem Post
Monday, August 14, 1989
NERVES OF STEEL NECESSARY FOR TRICKY NEGOTIATIONS WITH HIZBULLAH.
by : Kenneth Kaplan
From the moment Defence Minister Yitzhak Rabin announced two weeks ago that Sheikh Abdel Karim Obeid had been abducted in order to force Hizbullah to negotiate a release of IDF hostages, government officials have predicted the negotiation process would be long and nerve-racking.
Their predictions have already come true.
For the past 10 days the picture appeared promising. Hizbullah backed off from its threat to kill U.S. hostage Joseph Cicippio, hints at possible negotiations began surfacing in Iran and Lebanon, and the U.S. toned down its criticism of Israel.
But any euphoria was dissipated by the Sunday Times report that, according to Obeid, IDF soldiers Rahamim Alsheikh and Yossi Fink had died in January 1986.
The report cited senior Israeli government sources, but the IDF refused comment and issued its well-worn statement that it considered all IDF prisoners alive until proven otherwise.
The contradiction raises the inevitable question of who told the Sunday Times reporter what, and why.
The process of bringing the two sides to conduct negotiations through responsible channels requires a complex series of feints and counter-feints, threats, exaggerated demands and outright lies.
The real victims of this "game" are the families of the soldiers. The report in the Sunday Times said the IDF had informed the families of Obeid's claim that their sons were dead. But both families denied they had been told, while Alsheikh's father said he had been informed just two weeks ago his son was alive.
The IDF, meanwhile, tried yesterday to comfort the worried families, telling them not to pay attention to the foreign news reports. As far as the IDF is concerned, their sons are alive until evidence proves otherwise.
This is a sound position. Even if the newspaper's report is correct, it doesn't rule out the possibility that Obeid was either deliberately lying or simply did not know. Concrete evidence is the only proof.
Since Obeid's abduction, Hizbullah has faked one execution and threatened another.
Lately, Hizbullah has hinted a trade was possible for the Western hostages in return for the release of Shi'ite and Palestinian prisoners held in Israel.
Despite the current "coordination" between the U.S. and Israel on the hostage matter, the possibility exists the U.S. would put pressure on Israel for Obeid's release in return for the Western hostages.
Complicating matters further is the unhappy fact that time is not necessarily on Israel's side as far as trading Obeid is concerned.
Hizbullah's initial reaction to the abduction made it crystal clear they feared what Obeid could tell Israel. Hizbullah must assume that Obeid will tell his interrogators all he knows. When that happens, his value will be appreciably diminished.
Considering that Hizbullah has let dozens of its men languish in IDF and SLA prisons for months and years, it is not likely they would seek Obeid's release for purely humanitarian considerations.
It is important, therefore, for the IDF to convince Hizbullah that Obeid is still talking, that he has more to say, and that, consequently, he is still worth trading for.
If it is eventually learned that Fink and Alsheikh are dead, the question will inevitably be asked if Obeid's abduction was worth the effort.
Putting aside for a moment the fate of Air Force navigator Ron Arad, whose return would mark the operation as a success, it could also be argued that the time had come to end, once and for all, the anguished uncertainty of the soldiers' families.
If in the end, all that Israel receives are the bodies of its soldiers, the IDF's actions will be vindicated. If the Western hostages are also released in the process, the IDF's actions may even be praised.
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