Copyright 1990
The Washington Post

May 4, 1990

HEADLINE: Shiite Prisoners Form Dilemma for Israel in Hostage Endgame

BYLINE: Jackson Diehl, Washington Post Foreign Service



As prospects for arranging the release of American hostages in Lebanon appear to grow, Israel's dilemma is that it holds some of the strongest potential bargaining chips -- captive Shiite militants -- but has a distinctly different agenda: the release of its own military prisoners in Lebanon.

Radical Lebanese groups believed to be holding the remaining six American and nine other Western hostages have said in recent days that if more of their captives are to be freed, Israel must release hundreds of Shiite and other Arab prisoners it controls. Foremost among these is Sheik Abdul Karim Obeid, a cleric connected with the Hezbollah guerrilla group whom Israel seized in southern Lebanon last July.

In effect, the demand forces the United States and Israel to confront once again longstanding differences between their tactics and aims in dealing with the Lebanese groups -- differences that provoked tension and frustration between the two countries last summer in the wake of Obeid's capture.

In contrast with the United States, Israel consistently has said it is willing to bargain with the groups holding the hostages, and it captured Obeid last summer for the express purpose of gaining leverage with Hezbollah, which is believed to control most of the Western hostages. That strategy tends to undermine Washington's refusal to bargain with the Lebanese Shiites and their backers in Iran, especially when the price appears to be the very prisoners Israel says it is willing to trade.

At the same time, Israel has been pursuing its strategy not for the sake of the U.S. captives but in an effort to obtain the release of two Israeli soldiers and one airman captured by Shiites in Lebanon in 1986. Since Hezbollah refuses to release the Israelis, saying they are military prisoners of war and not civilian hostages who can be traded, Israel finds itself in the position of potentially appearing to hold up the release of more Americans because of its insistence that its soldiers be freed as part of any deal.

The discomfort provoked by these crossed purposes can be seen in the awkward behavior of the Bush administration, which does not wish to be seen as brokering Israeli-held Shiites for American hostages but also opposes Israel's capture and detention of Obeid. The result has been public statements by President Bush that he would not object to Israel's release of Shiite prisoners and that "all hostages" in the Middle East -- including Obeid -- should be released.

Israel's unease, in turn, is apparent in the insistence by its official spokesmen that Jerusalem has received no formal requests from Washington to release prisoners -- and off-the-record complaints of senior officials about the "indirect pressure" they feel is being applied. In response, the government has firmly repeated its stand that neither Obeid nor any other prisoner will be released unless the three Israelis are freed.

Israeli officials, who weathered a storm of Bush administration anger last summer after Obeid's capture prompted a Hezbollah-linked group to announce the execution of American hostage Lt. Col. William R. Higgins, argue that the apparent conflict of interests with Washington is a deliberate creation of Hezbollah and its allies. The Lebanese Shiites and their backers in Syria and Iran obviously want to punish Israel by driving a wedge between it and the United States on the hostage issue, these officials say, adding that if the groups are serious about making an exchange, they will eventually agree to include the Israeli captives.

Senior officials here say they believe Washington accepts and understands this Israeli position. Still, officials concede that the sudden reemergence of the hostage issue has been troubling here at a time when U.S.-Israeli relations are already in a trough because of differences over the Middle East peace process.

"Hezbollah probably thinks they can take advantage of the situation we are in now to set the United States against us," said an official. "But in fact there are no contradictions between what we [and Americans] are seeking, which is the freedom of all the hostages."

There is a precedent for the demand by Hezbollah and the Islamic Jihad group that Israel release prisoners in exchange for the freedom of Western hostages. In 1985, following the release by terrorists of 39 hostages aboard a hijacked TWA airliner in Beirut, Israel released about 700 Shiites it had captured in southern Lebanon, while formally denying there was any connection between the two events.

Officials here also concede that Israel helped to create the link between its dealings with Hezbollah and the American hostages by seriously miscalculating the impact of its capture of Obeid last summer. In seizing the cleric, Israeli officials saw themselves as merely taking the next step in what had been a running contest of tit-for-tat with Hezbollah in southern Lebanon.

Obeid, who was seized in a daring night commando raid on his home, allegedly was involved in the abduction of Israeli soldiers Yossi Fink and Rahamim Alsheikh in February 1986. That act, in turn, was apparently meant to avenge the 1985 assassination of the cleric who preceded Obeid as Hezbollah's spiritual leader in southern Lebanon.

What Israel failed to anticipate was that Hezbollah would respond by linking Obeid to the American hostages it also controls, rather than to the Israeli prisoners. Although Israel had hoped to open negotiations with the Shiites on an exchange of Obeid for Fink and Alsheikh, there has been no sign that it was able to establish contact with Hezbollah.

The situation is further complicated by doubts about the status of the Israeli prisoners. Following his capture, Obeid told his Israeli interrogators that both Fink and Alsheikh died shortly after their abduction from wounds suffered during the incident. While Israeli officials refused to accept the sheik's story, they concede that at least one of the two soldiers was seriously wounded at the time of his disappearance.

The third Israeli captive, airman Ron Arad, was reported by Israeli defense sources last December to be held by Iranian Revolutionary Guards inside Lebanon. Arad was believed to have been captured by Shiite militiamen after his F-4 Phantom jet was shot down over Lebanon in October 1986. Military sources released the report on his status after his wife said Israeli officials told her that Arad was in Iran.

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