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Reward for Thuggery

It would of course be preferable if the American hostages in Lebanon were transferred from the custody of Shia Muslims to the more comfortable and presumably safer confines of a Western embassy in Beirut, as Nabih Berri, leader of the “moderate” Amal Shia faction, has proposed. What is proposed, however, is not necessarily what may come to pass. Berri has not made an unqualified good-will offer as an earnest of his humanitarian instincts. He has simply changed the terms of an earlier suggested deal, and the nature of that deal as well as Berri’s ability to make good on it remain suspect.

For one thing, Berri still insists on linking any change in the hostages’ surroundings to a prior commitment for the release of Lebanese detainees in Israel. Despite any appearance of movement, this leaves things pretty much where they have been, with the hostages’ fate tied directly to rewarding the terrorists for the kidnapings, murder and general thuggery that they have committed. Both America and Israel have said repeatedly that they will accept no such linkage.

There is also the question of whether Berri could deliver on his proposal by getting the more radical Shias to give up the six or seven passengers and the three-man crew from TWA Flight 847 that they hold. The hostages, as events have made increasingly clear, are essentially pawns in a power struggle between Berri and the Iranian-supported radicals who carried out the hijacking. The potential grand prize in this contest is control of south Lebanon and its heavily Shia population. Whichever faction can claim to have impelled the release of the Israeli-held Shias is likely to gain in prestige, supporters and influence in the south. Given these stakes, the radicals would seem to have little incentive to cooperate in any way that might make Berri look good.

The Reagan Administration has decided, for the moment at least, that its most prudent course is to say nothing more of substance about the hostage issue. This could indicate that the back-channel diplomacy that has been under way to secure the Americans’ release has reached a delicate point. It could also indicate a day-after recognition by the Administration that it bungled when it chose to go public with warnings of possible economic or military retaliation if the hostages aren’t quickly set free.

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There are a couple of good rules that any major power ought to keep in mind before it makes public threats. The first is that it had better be ready to make good on those threats if it expects to retain international credibility. The second is that the actions that it threatens ought to not just be plausible but also stand a good chance of achieving their goal.

The Administration may indeed out of frustration be ready to try to blockade Lebanon’s Shia centers. What it appears not to have considered very carefully is how cost-effective such a maneuver would be, and how limited its chances of success. An expensive and inevitably risky naval blockade would, for example, do nothing to seal Lebanon’s land border with Syria. Over that border could continue to pass whatever food, fuel and other necessities of life a blockade might restrict.

The Administration deserves support in sticking to its determination not to cut a deal with terrorists. Clinging to that principle need not assure deadlock. Israel, as one more legacy of its tragically misconceived invasion and foolishly prolonged occupation, continues to hold more than 700 Lebanese whom it had no business bringing south of the border. It intends, as it had earlier made clear, to release these detainees in any case. There is no better time to do so than now, independently and without reference to the hostages, but with the clear aim of removing the Lebanese detainees as an issue.


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