TEL AVIV (Nov. 20)
Israel is confident that the United Nations is making every effort to include its soldiers missing in action in Lebanon in negotiations for the release of the remaining Western hostages, Defense Minister Moshe Arens said Wednesday.
“We are doing everything we can to guarantee that we are included in this process,” Arens told reporters during a tour of military installations on the northern border.
He admitted, however, that it was “hypothetically conceivable” that the Westerners will be freed and the Israelis not.
Hezbollah, the Islamic extremist movement, announced at a news conference in Beirut on Wednesday that there is absolutely no connection between the Western hostage issue and issue of Israelis being held in Lebanon.
Nevertheless, Arens said, there was cause for optimism in U.N. Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar’s hostage negotiations.
He said he was pleased that the secretary general has said he expected to receive word on the fate of Ron Arad, an Israeli air force navigator shot down over Lebanon.
Arad is the only one of six Israel Defense Force men missing in action in Lebanon presumed to be alive.
Israel is in contact with the secretary-general and his aides and is aware of their efforts “to free all hostages, prisoners of war and missing in action, including Israelis,” Arens said.
The secretary-general has not divorced the issue of Western hostages from that of Israel’s POWs and MIAs, Arens added.
Israel welcomed the releases Monday of Western hostages Terry Waite, a Briton and American Thomas Sutherland. It made clear, however, that it was not a party to those negotiations and will not reciprocate by freeing Arab prisoners.
Perez de Cuellar reported that he had been promised the remaining Western hostages would be freed by Christmas, a fact the English-language Teheran Times also reported.
DEPENDENT ON HEZBOLLAH
Optimism has grown because, for the first time, the captors did not make the release of Western hostages conditional on Israel’s release of Shi’ite Moslems and Palestinians detained in Israel or by its allied South Lebanon Army in the southern Lebanon security zone.
The releases of Waite and Sutherland and the expected release of other Westerners involved talks with Syria and Iran, who want to improve their international images, Israel’s deputy foreign minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, told an Israel Radio interviewer Wednesday.
The fate of Israeli POWs and MIAs, on the other hand, is dependent on Hezbollah.
Netanyahu said he hoped Arad’s fate and that of the other MIAs would be determined by the time Perez de Cuellar completes his U.N. tenure at the end of the year.
Israel may be willing to exchange Sheik Abdul Karim Obeid, a captured Hezbollah religious activist, for Arad.
It also wants back the bodies of Israel Defense Force soldiers Yossi Fink and Rahamim Alsheikh, whose deaths in captivity have been confirmed. That information resulted in Israel’s release of 66 Arab captives.
Confirmation is still lacking with respect to MIAs Yehuda Katz, Zecharia Baumel and Zvi Feldman. Until the information is forthcoming, Israel will not free any more prisoners.
A complicating factor is the issue of two German hostages held by terrorist groups in Lebanon who apparently are not among the Westerners expected to be home by Christmas.
Their captors say they will be freed only if Israel releases its Shi’ite and Palestinian prisoners and Germany frees or pardons the brothers Mohammad and Abbas Hamadei, who are serving prison terms in Germany for terrorist acts.
Observers noted that the U.N. secretary-general appeared to be separating the question of the release of the three remaining American hostages from the release of the Germans in Lebanon.
Mohammed Hamadei is serving a life term for the 1985 hijacking of a TWA airliner to Beirut and the killing of a U.S. Navy diver. His brother, Abbas Hamadei, is serving a 13-year term for kidnappings in Lebanon in order to effect Mohammed’s release.