Israelis Defend Capture of Shiite, but Some Say Publicity Was Wrong

Senior Israeli officials are charging that Israel made a serious error when it publicly acknowledged its responsibility for the capture of Shiite leader Sheikh Abdel Karim Obeid and his two aides.

Israeli newspapers quoted unnamed government officials Tuesday as saying that the public announcement that Israel was behind Obeid’s abduction may have been both responsible for escalating the situation and the cause of any damage to U.S.-Israeli relations that grows out of the affair.

Though they did not criticize the operation itself, the officials also said the public acknowledgment may have closed off options for behind-the-scenes arrangements with either the Islamic fundamentalist Hezbollah movement or its Iranian sponsors.

The officials pointed out that by contrast, Israel has never acknowledged any role in the May 1988 murder of Khalil al-Wazir, a top Palestine Liberation Organization official also known as Abu Jihad. Israeli commandos are widely believed to have assassinated Wazir in a commando raid not unlike the one used to seize Obeid on July 28.

The proposal to capture Obeid was presented to Israel’s Inner Cabinet three weeks ago.

The operation was approved by a vote of 111, with only Energy Minister Moshe Shahal of the Labor Party opposing the operation. Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin was authorized to decide the details of the operation.

During the Inner Cabinet discussion of the operation, Rabin reportedly explained that all possible measures to release three Israel Defense Force soldiers being held by Shiite groups in Lebanon had been exhausted.

HEZBOLLAH HAD REJECTED AN EXCHANGE

Hezbollah, which is believed to be holding two of the Israelis, had rejected a previous offer to exchange the soldiers for Shiites held in Israel, Rabin said.

Both direct and indirect negotiations for a prisoner exchange reportedly took place in London and other locations with the participation of Israeli intelligence officers.

The third Israeli is believed to be held by the more mainstream Shiite Amal militia.

Under Israeli interrogation Monday, Obeid confessed to involvement in the abduction of U.S. Lt. Col. William Higgins, as well as other kidnappings and attacks in southern Lebanon. A Hezbollah faction said Monday it had hanged Higgins in retaliation for Obeid’s abduction.

Israeli officials said Obeid also admitted participating in the kidnapping of IDF soldiers Yossi Fink and Rahamim Alsheikh in February 1986, and helped plan numerous attacks against Israeli forces in southern Lebanon.

The revelation that Israeli negotiations with the Shiites for the release of their soldiers held in Lebanon had broken down helps paint a clearer picture of the rationale behind the government’s decision to capture Obeid.

It is a cardinal principle of the Israeli Defense Force that no effort is spared to guarantee the safety of soldiers. Every soldier knows that if he falls prisoner, Israel will make every attempt to ensure that he returns home, as a result of either a military rescue operation or a prisoner-of-war exchange.

In an attempt to explain Israel’s position to the United States and deal with the political implications of the Obeid kidnapping, the Foreign Ministry on Tuesday set up a special team, headed by Deputy Foreign Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who formerly served as ambassador to the United Nations.

The team released a seven-point statement Tuesday which tried to clarify Israeli actions and reiterated Israel’s offer of a prisoner exchange.

“Israel fully and wholeheartedly welcomes the call voiced by President Bush to bring about a reversal of the cycle of violence,” the statement said. “It is in that spirit that Defense Minister Rabin publicly proposed yesterday to exchange all hostages of all nationalities for Shiites held by Israel.”

The statement also pointed out that Israel made the decision to capture Obeid only after “peaceful efforts” to free its hostages had failed. It emphasized that the democratic world must remain united in the “common struggle” against terrorism.

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