Failure to Solve Prisoner Issue Straining Israeli Ties with U.N.

Signs of strain have emerged between Israel and the United Nations over the failure of U.N. negotiators so far to secure the freedom or at least determine the fate of four Israeli soldiers missing in Lebanon, one of whom is believed to be alive.

At the same time, the Bush administration has reassured the American Jewish community that it is committed to obtaining the Israelis’ release.

The Israelis feel frustrated that outgoing U.N. Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar was not able to secure the release of missing Israeli airman Ron Arad as part of the overall prisoner exchange that led to the freeing of the last U.S. and British hostages held by Shi’ite groups in Lebanon.

The United Nations, for its part, has accused Israel of complicating the negotiations by staging a commando raid in southern Lebanon last Friday, in which three civilians were apprehended, taken to Israel for questioning and later released.

Perez de Cuellar issued a statement Monday regretting the Israeli raid, saying it “already has had a negative effect” on his efforts on behalf of the Israeli MIAs.

The statement did not elaborate. But the secretary-general’s special envoy, Giandomenico Picco, was reportedly in Lebanon at the time, seeking the release of the Israeli MIAs, as well as two abducted Germans. Also on his itinerary were meetings in Teheran and Damascus, before departing for New York on Tuesday.

‘JUST AN EXCUSE’

Israel’s chief negotiator on the MIAs, Uri Lubrani, denied that the Lebanon operation affected the negotiations. “I don’t think there is any connection,” he told army radio in Israel. “I think it is just an excuse to show why it is so hard.”

In what appears to have been a deliberate snub, Lubrani specifically excluded Perez de Cuellar from his praise for ongoing U.N. efforts.

“I have no doubt that the people that were occupied with this for the United Nations made an effort — I’m not talking at the moment about the secretary-general, I’m talking about the people who were occupied with it — made a real effort,” Lubrani said.

This contrasted with the satisfaction expressed by families of the MIAs after they met here last week with the secretary-general.

Most notably pleased was Arad’s wife, Tami, who had earlier criticized the United Nations for not pushing hard enough for his release.

Ron Arad, an Israeli air force navigator captured in Lebanon in 1986, is the only Israeli MIA believed alive. Three other soldiers, captured by the Syrians in 1982, are believed dead, but there has been no firm word on their fate.

In New York, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations has stepped up its public push for the MIAs. The focus of its efforts is the Bush administration, which came under criticism for failing to mention the Israeli soldiers at a White House reception honoring the secretary-general after the last American hostage was freed.

Late last week, however, the White House called the Conference of Presidents to say that President Bush did raise the issue of the Israeli MIAs in his private discussions with Perez de Cuellar and Picco during the reception.

“The president is continuing to give this priority attention,” Malcolm Hoenlein, executive director of the Conference of Presidents, said after speaking with an assistant to the president.

As part of the increased profile being given to the issue, Shoshana Cardin has written a personal letter to first lady Barbara Bush, describing the anguish felt by the families of the Israeli MIAs.

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