The release of David P. Jacobsen, an American hospital administrator kidnaped in Lebanon 17 months ago, has given a new lift to hopes that at least some of the five other Americans being held hostage in Lebanon may soon be freed.
Although the Reagan Administration has steadfastly maintained that it will make no concessions to terrorists, there have been several indications in recent days that some kind of deal may be taking shape between Washington and Islamic Jihad, the group that held Jacobsen and still holds two other Americans hostage.
The discussions under way to free the hostages are shrouded in secrecy, but they are known to involve contacts at various levels with parties that are believed to include Syria and possibly Iran, which has strong ties to Islamic Jihad. Neither the Reagan Administration nor anyone else involved in the negotiations will say more, however, for fear of upsetting the delicate talks and jeopardizing the hostages.
Awaiting Waite's Return
Administration officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said they do not expect another break in the situation until Terry Waite, an envoy of the Anglican Church who has been negotiating for the freedom of Jacobsen and the other hostages, returns to Lebanon. Waite accompanied Jacobsen to Wiesbaden, West Germany, on Monday.
President Reagan, apparently adhering to his vow not to use Jacobsen's release for political mileage, refrained from mentioning the issue in speeches made Monday, on the eve of Election Day.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Charles Redman would comment only broadly on the hostage issue, saying the Administration still refuses to "make concessions to terrorists" but adding that it is permissible for U.S. officials to maintain "a dialogue" with the kidnapers. He would not say whether any foreign governments were involved in any such contacts.
However, one of the most intriguing indications that more hostages may soon be released was the statement issued by Islamic Jihad when it freed Jacobsen in Beirut on Sunday.
The statement linked Jacobsen's release to "current approaches" made by Washington and said they "could lead, if continued, to a solution of the hostages issue." The statement warned, however, that Islamic Jihad will "take a totally different attitude in case the American government fails to complete these approaches to arrive at the hoped for results."
U.S. officials, both here and in Washington, have refused to comment on these "approaches," but one Western diplomat said he thought that Jacobsen's release was meant to be "an act of good faith" by Islamic Jihad that probably would not have taken place unless an agreement to free the other two hostages in the group's possession was near.
The other hostages believed held by Islamic Jihad are Terry A. Anderson, chief Middle East correspondent of the Associated Press, and Thomas Sutherland, the dean of agriculture at the American University of Beirut, both kidnaped in 1985.
In addition, at least three other Americans are being held by other groups in Lebanon--Joseph J. Cicippio, acting controller of the American University; Edward A. Tracy, a book salesman, and Frank H. Reed, director of a private school in Beirut.
Asked about the Islamic Jihad statement and its references to new approaches by the Reagan Administration, White House spokesman Larry Speakes said in Santa Barbara, Calif., that "we continue our policy of talking with anyone who can be helpful, but we do not make concessions, nor do we ask third countries to do so."
Speakes added that the United States was holding "very intensive discussions with various parties who could be helpful" in winning the release of the hostages. He refused to say who these parties were but added, "We remain hopeful."
Waite, although evidently not the only channel of communication between the United States and the Muslim kidnapers in Beirut, has emerged as one of the key intermediaries in the negotiations.
Waite, a layman who serves as the special envoy of Robert A. K. Runcie, the Archbishop of Canterbury, became involved in the hostage negotiations in November, 1985, and has since made several trips to Beirut, where he has held face-to-face talks with the kidnapers.
Waite was in Damascus, Syria, last June when two Frenchmen were freed and driven to the Syrian capital. He arrived unannounced in Beirut last Friday, two days before Jacobsen's release.
During those two days, he shuttled between Beirut, Damascus and Cyprus via U.S. Navy air transport, and he accompanied Jacobsen on his freedom flight from Beirut to Cyprus and then to Wiesbaden.
Waite told reporters in Cyprus that he planned to spend "a couple of days" with Jacobsen but hoped to return soon to Lebanon "to pursue the cause of the remaining hostages."
Waite declined to discuss the terms of Jacobsen's release, citing "the very great sensitivity of the next stage" in the negotiations.
However, he said, now is "a good and promising time," and added, "Our efforts will continue with all the force and vigor that they've had in the past days."
The envoy's optimism notwithstanding, a number of observers were puzzled by Waite's decision to accompany Jacobsen to Wiesbaden and to spend some time with him there. If an agreement to release more or all the hostages was imminent, they reasoned, why would Waite leave the region at what appears to be a crucial juncture unless a delay or some hitch had developed?
Indeed, reports from Washington indicated that the Administration had been expecting another hostage to be released along with Jacobsen. If this was to have been the scenario, there was no immediate indication why it failed to materialize.
Sources close to Waite indicated that he hopes to return to the region within a few days, and Speakes, briefing reporters in Santa Barbara, said, "We remain hard at work through a number of channels on this question."
In recent months, the families of some of the hostages have accused the Reagan Administration of being sluggish in its efforts to secure the release of the captives. The Administration has denied this allegation, but one of many mysteries surrounding the hostage affair is why the sudden flurry of diplomatic activity to free the hostages is taking place only now.
Link to British Action
Some diplomats and other observers have suggested that the efforts to free the hostages may have been given new impetus by British allegations that Syria was responsible for an attempt to plant a bomb aboard an Israeli airliner in London on April 17. Britain recently severed diplomatic relations with Syria over the incident, and the United States withdrew its ambassador from Damascus in support.
The inference is that Syria may be exerting extra efforts to free the hostages so as to divert attention from the El Al affair and the evidence produced by Britain of Syrian support for terrorism.
However, all of this remains, for the moment, in the realm of speculation, and other diplomats think it is Iran, and not Syria, that holds the key to putting pressure on Islamic Jihad.