Israelis Praise U.N. Hostage Effort but Doubt It Will Produce Deal Soon

The Israeli negotiators who have been working here on a deal to exchange Shi’ite prisoners for Western hostages have expressed satisfaction with the way U.N. Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar has handled the delicate negotiations.

For the first time, they said, the United Nations has shown a real understanding of Israel’s position, which in this case is to not agree to any exchange before receiving tangible evidence about the fate of seven Israeli soldiers missing in action in Lebanon.

The three-member Israeli delegation left here last Thursday without receiving any concrete information about the seven MIAs. After returning to Jerusalem, the team briefed Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and Defense Minister Moshe Arens about its talks with the U.N. secretary-general.

Perez de Cuellar continued to voice optimism, saying he was “really hopeful” an agreement would be reached soon on a prisoner-for-hostage exchange that would result in the release of Western hostages held by Lebanese Shi’ites.

Whether it took days or weeks would depend on how quickly the parties responded, the secretary-general told reporters last Thursday before leaving for Lucerne and then Portugal.

But in Jerusalem, Uri Lubrani, the head of the Israeli delegation, said, “I don’t believe that the matter will be over in two weeks.

“I wish it were so, but so far, nothing should be expected,” said Lubrani, who is the Defense Ministry’s coordinator of operations in Lebanon.

The other members of the Israeli delegation were Yohanan Bein, deputy director general of Israel’s Foreign Ministry, and Ori Slonim, who is Shamir’s special adviser on the hostages.

SWISS PLAYING A KEY ROLE

Slonim said he, too, saw no grounds for optimism at this point and predicted the process would take a long time and require much patience.

Here in Geneva, intensive talks involving U.N., Israeli, Iranian and various Western representatives, have apparently ended for the moment.

The Israelis agree with Perez de Cuellar that the time has come for quiet diplomacy. Their experience has shown that delicate negotiations must be conducted in complete secrecy, away from the media limelight.

The U.N. secretary-general also said he now needs help from Western diplomats, because the job, which requires a lot of traveling, cannot be a “one-man show.”

The Iranians are the key to the whole hostage imbroglio, Lubrani said before leaving Geneva. According to him, the Iranians are trying to play the “good guys” with the U.N. chief because they need his good will in their forthcoming peace negotiations with Iraq.

As soon as Perez de Cuellar has any information from them on the fate of the Israeli MIAs, he will be in touch with Israel.

Before leaving Geneva, the Israeli delegation visited the headquarters of the International Committee of the Red Cross to meet with Angelo Gnaedinger, head of its Middle East desk.

Bein of the Israeli Foreign Ministry told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that Israel would like the ICRC to take charge of the actual hostage exchange when it occurs.

The Israelis also met with U.S. officials here, as well as Swiss Deputy Foreign Minister Klaus Jacobi. The Swiss, who are masters at quiet diplomacy, have been very helpful in this delicate matter, the Israelis remarked.

Jacobi was reported Sunday to be in Teheran, meeting with leaders of the Iranian-backed Hezbollah, the Shi’ite group with which the kidnappers of the Western hostages are affiliated.

(JTA correspondent Gil Sedan in Jerusalem contributed to this report.)

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