JERUSALEM (Aug. 12)
A sense of gloom appeared to settle over Israel this week, as it became known that Shi’ite captors in Lebanon had not provided any information or even a hint as to the welfare and whereabouts of Israeli soldiers missing in action there.
Seasoned observers cautioned, however, that appearances could be deceptive. Negotiations surrounding hostage exchanges are necessarily conducted far from the eyes of the media, and sometimes involve a deliberately misleading smokescreen.
The discouraging tidings came from Geneva, where two Israeli officials met Sunday night with U.N. Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar. While the U.N. chief later characterized the meeting as positive, reports reaching Israel were described by officials as “disappointing.”
In Geneva, well-informed diplomatic sources said Perez de Cuellar asked the Israelis to release some 300 Lebanese prisoners it holds, as a goodwill gesture.
Israeli officials have ruled out a unilateral release. But Foreign Minister David Levy told reporters Monday afternoon that Israel stands ready “to pay a price” for the return of its missing men.
There was no specific reference to the Israeli MIAs in the letter conveyed by former British hostage John McCarthy from his Islamic Jihad captors to Perez de Cuellar. The two met Sunday on the tarmac of an airfield in Lyneham, England.
The letter that McCarthy brought with him was, however, fraught with damning references to the Israelis as usurpers of the Holy Land and oppressors of “downtrodden people.”
Nor did the communication flatter the United States, which it called “the Great Satan” and the “mother of iniquity throughout the world and its offspring, Israel.”
Still, Washington was saying Monday that there are some “positive aspects” to the letter.
And Perez de Cuellar said a resolution is “nearer than before.”
COMPLAINTS ABOUT ‘ZIONIST ENEMY’
The Islamic Jihad letter complained about the approach the United Nations has taken on “the Moslem people of Palestine, the usurpation of their land from which they have been evicted, the attempts of the Zionist enemy to exterminate them, the question of the occupied territories in Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, and subsequently the Gulf crisis.”
But it also called on Perez de Cuellar to “make a personal endeavor, within the framework of a comprehensive solution, to secure the release of all detainees around the world.”
The letter said Islamic Jihad “would be perfectly willing to complete the process that we began today and to release the persons whom we are detaining within 24 hours,” if the United Nations is able to “secure the release of our freedom-fighters from prisons in occupied Palestine and Europe.”
The two Israeli officials sent to negotiate with Perez de Cuellar were Uri Lubrani, coordinator of Israeli affairs in Lebanon, and Yohanan Bein, head of the international organizations division of the Foreign Ministry.
Bein, who is former acting ambassador to the United Nations, has a long working relationship with the secretary-general. Both men returned here Monday to report on their talks, but were scheduled to head back for Geneva.
The Israelis made clear to the secretary-general that Israel will not agree to any release until it gets some information concerning its missing men, according to Yitzhak Lior, the Israeli ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva.
ISRAEL READY TO ‘PAY A PRICE’
In Jerusalem, Foreign Minister Levy told reporters Monday afternoon that his ministry and the Defense Ministry are preparing a report-and-assessment paper for Cabinet policy-makers.
“In the cruel world in which we live,” Levy said, Israel would plainly have to “pay a price” to get its men back.
But the minister, like other Israeli policymakers, insisted that the first step must be word from or access to the Israeli MIAs. A unilateral Israeli release of prisoners would represent “abandonment” of the Israelis, he said.
Officials here said that as soon the International Red Cross is given access to the Israeli captives, Israel will gladly allow the Red Cross to visit Sheik Abdul Karim Obeid.
Israeli commandos seized the Shi’ite fundamentalist cleric from his home in southern Lebanon in July 1989, and he is now being held in a jail inside Israel, presumably as a bargaining chip.
Israel is placing the same conditions on allowing Red Cross access to the El-Khiam prison, where the Israeli-backed South Lebanon Army is holding some 375 prisoners, arrested for security offenses.
Islamic Jihad made mention of this and other detention centers in its letter to Perez de Cuellar. The group wants these men released as part of the exchange for Western hostages.
Israeli officials have acknowledged mounting pressure from some Western governments for a unilateral gesture from Jerusalem. Britain made its demand to this effect public.
But Israeli officials feel that other nations are failing to take account of Israel’s interest in its own MIAs.
(JTA correspondent Tamar Levy in Geneva contributed to this report.)