Two years ago, when Israeli commandos kidnaped Sheik Abdel Karim Obeid, a Shiite Muslim cleric, from his house in southern Lebanon and imprisoned him in Israel, top officials confidently predicted that the abduction would quickly break the impasse over the release of hostages and prisoners in Lebanon.
It did not turn out to be that simple. Three Western hostages have been released in the last two weeks, but Obeid still sits in jail. A controversy has broken out over whether his detention and that of other captives held or controlled by Israel is a boon or hindrance to securing the freedom of the hostages in Lebanon.
Israel says it won't release the captives it holds, including Obeid, until it receives an accounting of seven missing Israeli soldiers in Lebanon. Iran and Syria, each having a strong influence with the hostage-takers, are saying that Obeid and others must be set free before more Western hostages are released. They offer no guarantees for the Israelis.
That seems to be what happens when you enter the hostage bazaar. No one is quite sure just what the price of freedom will eventually be. No one is even sure if the "goods"--in the case of the Israeli soldiers--are alive or dead.
Israeli news columnist Yoel Marcus commented Friday on the complexities and demands by Islamic Jihad, one of the Shiite Muslim groups in Lebanon claiming to hold Western hostages, for the release of all Arabs convicted of crimes in Europe. Marcus wrote: "We are talking about an operation involving 11 countries.
"It will be demanded of seven of these countries to release 21 Arab terrorists serving long prison terms. Three states have (Western) hostages under their control or in their territory," he said, referring to Syria and Iran, together with Lebanon, where the hostages are actually believed to be held.
Marcus went on to list four hostage-taking groups along with 12 factions that need to be satisfied.
"Then, there is Israel, which finally has the chance to get back its captives and missing," he concluded.
Uri Lubrani, the chief Israeli hostage negotiator, advised: "We need patience and a long breath. While the chances are good, nothing will happen overnight."
Unlike the situation in July, 1989, when Israel tried to provoke a prisoner swap with the abduction of Obeid, the current situation is, in part, being forced on Israel. Theoretically, Syria and Iran could have dealt with the West without involving Israel.
In any event, being on the defensive is not what Israel had in mind when it took Obeid, who is a mentor of Hezbollah, or Party of God, a Shiite Muslim political-religious organization in Lebanon that shelters several guerrilla outfits. At the time, Israeli officials disdained the slow approach of Western governments trying to secure release of the hostages. "For all practical purposes, hostages can stay in Lebanon forever," said Yitzhak Rabin, who as defense chief, ordered Obeid's kidnaping.
At first, Rabin announced that the abduction was meant to pry loose Israel's soldiers, some of whom have been missing since 1982. Facing a critical world audience, he later sweetened the deal by saying a trade could be worked out to include Western hostages.
Rabin believed that Hezbollah, fearful of what Obeid might reveal under interrogation, would quickly make a deal. Israel would also throw in about 400 Lebanese and Palestinian prisoners it holds in southern Lebanon, it was said. Months dragged by without results.
Now, however, Westerners appear on the verge of being released, and pressure is on Israel to free its captives. President Bush, never convinced of the wisdom of the Obeid kidnaping or a policy of trading captives for captives, is a leading prodder. "All countries holding hostages ought to release them," Bush declared. He had Israel in mind, reports from Washington said.
Britain also asked Israel to free prisoners to promote more releases of Western hostages in Lebanon.
In rebuttal, Moshe Arens, Israel's current defense minister, insisted that missing and captive Israelis deserve freedom as much as anyone else and that other prisoners will not get home at Israel's expense.
"There were times and there were people who thought that the life of a Frenchman or Englishman was more important than a Jewish life," he told reporters. "Happily, I can say that with the establishment of the state of Israel, these days have passed."
Israel rejects the notion of releasing some prisoners as a "goodwill gesture" because, officials said, it fruitlessly made such a gesture 10 months ago. "Israel unconditionally released 40 Shiites," wrote columnist Marcus. "We received nothing in return."
The need to keep on good terms with Washington and other Western capitals has prompted Israel to embark on a massive public relations campaign to explain its position. Lubrani, Jerusalem's usually shadowy hostage trouble-shooter, is a frequent voice on news shows here and abroad.
Deputy Foreign Minster Binyamin Netanyahu has appeared so often on American television that the pro-government Jerusalem Post joked: "If there were an Academy Award for the frequency and quality of dramatic news shows in the U.S., this week's winner" would be he.
For Israel, there is one glimmer of improvement over the experience of two years ago, officials here said. With U.N. Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar acting as go-between, Israel has found an international mediator for the first time to take its case to the hostage-holders, as well as to Syria and Iran.