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Two Hostages Out, and Hundreds to Go : The upfront issue now is getting everyone’s prisoners exchanged. The heat is on to play the Israel connection.

<i> Jerry Levin, a journalist specializing in the Middle East, was CNN's Beirut bureau chief in 1984 where he was kidnaped by Hezbollah. He escaped on Feb. 14, 1985</i>

The best that can be said about the release of American hostages Robert Polhill and Frank Reed is that their return marked only the beginning of the beginning for the others still in captivity, not the beginning of the end.

What appears to be happening is a kind of cautious groping for a process of politically “safe” accommodation, a kind of face-saving “uncompromising” compromise that all parties will be able to claim never happened.

The result of the Polhill/Reed stage-one release process was a significant tactical draw. Although it was no-win for everyone (except the Polhill and Reed families), it nevertheless was no-loss too. When lives are in peril, this can be considered--if not progress--at least a gain.

The beginning of the next stage in the release process appears to be a further testing of each party’s current intentions and attitudes in relation to one of the core issues of the long hostage ordeal--exchanging prisoners.

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Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani’s complaint that Washington’s lukewarm thanks for Tehran’s role in the release of Polhill and Reed was “inadequate and unwise” drew a tactful response from President Bush. He implied a parallel between our national pain and Iran’s by expressing some empathy for Iran’s periodic expressions of concern about the fate of three Iranian diplomats and their driver who disappeared in Christian East Beirut on July 4, 1982, and its additional oft-expressed concern for the fate of 400 to 500 Lebanese and Palestinians being held hostage by Israel.

By continuing to dwell on their own missing officials and Israel’s hostages, Iran has been sending a message for quite some time that Westerners are not the only kidnap victims in Lebanon, and that justice requires that Muslim sensibilities in this respect need also to be taken into account.

President Bush pledged that the United States would try to be of assistance to Iran, so long as this was not “perceived as negotiating for the release of hostages.” His comment was similar to those he voiced nearly a year ago in response to Israel’s kidnaping of Sheik Abdel Karim Obeid, the south Lebanese Shiite leader linked to Hezbollah. At that time, the President appealed to “all who hold hostages in the Middle East to release them forthwith.” And after Reed’s release, the White House--its no-deal policy for American hostages notwithstanding--said that it would not object to Israel trading its Lebanese and Palestinian hostages for three Israeli servicemen captured in Lebanon in 1986.

Other rewards for “helping out"--speeding up the return of Iranian frozen assets, compensating Iran for undelivered military equipment and normalizing diplomatic and trade relations with both Iran and Syria--will undoubtedly take place in time, but not until all our hostages have come home and probably not until both Iran and Syria get themselves off the State Department’s list of nations involved with terrorism. The nation’s bitter Iran-Contra experience with foolhardy upfront rewards without ironclad guarantees that the hostages would be freed will prevent that from happening again.

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Iran’s upbeat announcement Wednesday that progress had been made at the Iran-U.S. Claims Tribunal in The Hague is an indication that upfront material compensation and rewards are no longer the major issues they once seemed to be. Iran seems to be satisfied that both can be expected in an appropriate period of time after all the hostages come home. So now, the upfront issue is getting everyone’s hostages and prisoners exchanged.

The most consistent demand of the Lebanese captors has been for the return of Arab prisoners and hostages. If no more American hostages are taken to replace Polhill and Reed, we can take this as a signal that the captors are watching to see if Washington will pressure Israel to free the hostages it seized in Lebanon, and if Kuwait will find a way to release 15 Shiite Muslims convicted of terrorism in December, 1983.

It should not really be surprising that the fate of the American and perhaps other Western hostages now seems to be depending on what Israel and its Lebanese adversaries are ready and willing to do about their hostage situation. There always has been a direct Israeli connection to the plight of the American hostages.

It was Washington’s essentially uncritical support of Israel’s invasion of Lebanon (and then our eventual violent intrusion into Lebanon’s civil war, mostly on Israel’s behalf) that turned a fairly high Lebanese regard for Americans into deadly hatred. Now there is a growing insistence in the United States that because the Israelis played a major role in getting us into this mess, they’d better help get us out--with the lives of our six remaining hostage citizens intact.

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