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Copyright 1991
The Jerusalem Post

September 12, 1991

HEADLINE: The Uneven Swap

THE most striking fact in the nine-year-long effort to secure the release of Israeli prisoners in Lebanon is the boundless, unspeakable cruelty of their captors. It takes a special kind of sadism, of cruelty for its own sake, to deliberately deprive captive men's families of information regarding their fate. After all, withholding this knowledge has no effect on Israel's strategic capabilities or its fighting ability. Its only purpose is to play havoc with human hearts and to torture shattered families with gnawing, devastating doubts. And as if to put a refinement on this inhumanity, the captors and their mentors regularly float false rumors about their captives, which send their families from peaks of hope to the depth of despair.

Only totalitarian societies are capable of such cruelties: the Nazis and Communists excelled in them. That the governments of Syria and Iran and their surrogates in Lebanon practise them with such expertise and dedication must say something about their readiness to join the comity of civilized nations.

By any criteria, what Israel paid yesterday for nothing more than information about its captured men was extravagant. Only part of this information was firm: that Rahamim Levi Alsheikh, one of the soldiers captured by the Hizbullah in February 1986, was dead. In return, Israel handed back the bodies of nine Hizbullah gunmen, and got the South Lebanese Army to free 51 Shi'ite prisoners.

What is forgotten in the media excitement around the event is that six months ago a similar release of Shi'ite prisoners was made in the hope, which proved unfounded, that it would bring a response in kind from the Hizbullah. Realizing that goodwill gestures are wasted on terrorists, the Israeli government then announced that it would require at least some certifiable news about the captives before it asked the SLA to release more prisoners.

As one Hizbullah chieftain indicated yesterday, Israel's gesture may produce results: The captors of the American and European hostages in Lebanon may now release one or two of the Westerners, but not Israeli prisoners, as a reciprocal gesture. They may even allow another trickle of information about the captive Israeli soldiers to reach Israel. Clearly, they hope to exact as high a price as possible from Israel for doing precisely what they want to do: release the Western hostages in order to receive economic aid from the West. They hope to accomplish this without releasing any of the Israeli captives still alive, and to obtain freedom for Hizbullah leader Sheikh Abdul Karim Obeid in the bargain.

Their hope is not baseless. It relies on Israel's known vulnerability: its commitment to sparing no effort to obtain the release of its prisoners of war and soldiers missing in action. They have learned, too, that Israel is so concerned about the welfare of the prisoners' families that it may be tempted to squander the few cards it possesses in this ruthless game on information and dead bodies.

Indeed, the task of the Israeli negotiators is unenviable. The pressure from the captives' families is fierce, but they also have an acute awareness of the danger of releasing terrorists. They must resist the temptation of scoring immediate triumphs at the cost of future tragedies.

Fortunately, Israel's chief negotiator is Uri Lubrani. He is the most experienced and realistic of Israel's experts on Lebanon, and he will undoubtedly conduct the delicate negotiations through the UN secretary-general wisely and prudently. But the Israeli government must exert a much greater effort to make plain to the world the basic truth of the situation. It cannot acquiesce in the fiction that Hizbullah and other terrorist groups are independent entities with which one must deal.

Mr. Javier Perez de Cuellar may have to deny that he is negotiating directly with the Iranian government for the release of Western hostages, but the Israeli government has nothing to gain from playing "let's pretend." It must make it clear that it is neither Hizbullah nor any other local group which should be held responsible for the fate of the captives. It is far too easy for each of these gangs to disclaim responsibility by telling tales of captives mysteriously lost or sold to other groups. Israel knows that none of these organizations would survive for a day without the sanction and active support of the governments of Iran and Syria. And it is only these governments that Israel must hold responsible for the fate of Zvi Feldman, Zachary Baumel, Yehuda Katz, Samir Assad, Ron Arad, Joseph Fink, and the late Rahamim Alsheikh.

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