A Little Quiet Diplomacy

How do you negotiate without negotiating.? That question has plagued Washington ever since the hostage nightmare began in Lebanon nine years ago. Opposed on principle to dealing with terrorists, the United States is nonetheless obligated by politics and humanity to try to liberate its citizens. What's the best way to resolve the contradiction? It's not enough to lie. The Reagan administration's arms-for-hostages debacle proved that.

To deal without appearing to deal, a good go-between is essential. "What you need is a party trusted by both sides who can arrange meetings that don't exist," says a Lebanese expatriate with ties to Hizbullah, the Shiite Muslim umbrella group to which the hostage-takers belong. Wisely, the Bush administration is relying on United Nations Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar to fill this role, rather than on the shady arms dealers and self-important secret agents used in previous efforts. Perez de Cuellar is not a negotiator, if only because he himself has nothing to give up; he refers to his role as that of a ,'mailbox." The secretary-general heard from all the parties last week. "Now we have a very clear idea what the Israelis want, what the Western countries want, what the captors want," he said. The rest of the process must be based on carefully calibrated expectations, legalistic half-truths and subtle evasions. Some of the most useful techniques:

"This administration will never rest until every hostage is free to rejoin his loved ones," President Bush proclaimed last week. Then he teed off at the golf course in Kennebunkport. After several days' work in Geneva, Perez de Cuellar coolly went off on a short vacation. "We now enter into some quiet diplomacy," he said, adding there was reason to believe that "something may happen in a matter of weeks." Hopes for an imminent hostage release dimmed, but so did the spotlight on the process.

The main troubleshooter working the hostage issue for the United Nations appears to be the relatively unknown Giandomenico Picco, an Italian-born international civil servant who serves as Perez de Cuellar's special envoy. At one point Picco was sighted in Damascus; at another he was said to be in the Bekaa Valley, a stronghold of the hostage-takers. Officially, Picco was on hand merely to "witness" any release of Western hostages, but he seemed to be doing some of the quiet diplomacy. Late last week he, too, went off on what was described as a vacation.

This is the core of the current deal. As it now stands, Washington would give nothing to free the Western hostages, but its ally Israel would free about 375 Lebanese prisoners it holds, including Sheik Abdel Karim Obeid, a Shiite religious leader (box). Israel's price is the return of seven Israeli soldiers missing in Lebanon, or the remains of those who have died.

Who holds the hostages? What shape are they in? Such basic information is fundamental to any ransom situation, but especially one as complex as this. Lebanon's kidnappers have used many different names for their organizations, but experience has proved that virtually all the hostages are held by the same group, Hizbullah. It would be just the hostage-takers' style to try releasing a few Westerners in the name of one group while holding others back in the name of another. Israel insists on definitive information about its missing soldiers (most of whom are thought to be dead) before it acts. As Perez de Cuellar put it, this is "a fair demand."

Given the sensitivity and complexity of the current talks-and Israel's shaky legal basis for holding its Shiite captives-it's best not even to call hostages "hostages." The word is too emotional. The kidnappers referred to "detainees." "Prisoners" is probably best. Leave fiery rhetoric to the terrorists. Lebanon's fanatics may ramble on incoherently, as they did in a letter to Perez de Cuellar delivered by released British hostage John McCarthy. But they pay careful attention to the public pronouncements of American and European leaders, sometimes using such statements as pretexts to stall or end negotiations. The 1985 release of 39 Americans from a hijacked TWA airliner was held up for a day, and almost aborted, when Ronald Reagan delivered an ill-considered speech referring to the kidnappers as "thugs, murderers and barbarians" and saying that terrorists "must and will be brought to account." Some of those terrorists are the same people holding Western hostages today.

Last week Ahmad Jibril, the pro-Syrian leader of a breakaway Palestinian faction, said he was in contact with the captors of three Israeli soldiers and outlined a two-step process for releasing prisoners on both sides. He demanded freedom for what he said were 18,000 Palestinian prisoners from the West Bank and Gaza Strip; Israel admits to holding only 7,000 such prisoners and insists they are not covered by the negotiations. Jibril's sudden arrival at the negotiating table may have something to do with Syria's efforts to undercut Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasir Arafat. If Jibril and Syria play key roles in a hostage release, they may upstage Arafat at the forthcoming Mideast peace conference.

Jibril's demand for the release of Palestinians from the occupied territories could fatally complicate the negotiations. So could the hostage-takers' demand for the release of Arab prisoners in Europe: at least 19 terrorists imprisoned in seven countries. That includes the Hamadei brothers in Germany. One was jailed for the TWA hijacking, the other for taking hostages to try to free him. (Abdul Hadi Hamadei, their elder brother, is the chief of Hizbullah security.)

Since most of the American and British hostages were seized, the Middle East has experienced vast changes, including the death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the U.S. victory in the Persian Gulf and the enhanced stature of the United Nations. All of this has improved the prospects for a complete hostage release. Of course, during the same span of time, Terry Anderson, the longest-held hostage, lost his father and brother to cancer and became the father of a 6-year-old girl he still hasn't seen. The lives of the other nine hostages are also passing them by. So patience can wear a little thin.


The prisoners are kept in tiny, unlit cells: five men crammed into a space measuring just 11 feet square. They sleep on mattresses on the floor and use a plastic container as a toilet. There is no mail or telephone service; no visits from family or friends, or from the Red Cross. The prisoners may not read newspapers or books, or listen to the radio. They are not allowed to talk to one another; if they are caught doing so, they lose their already minimal exercise time. Although none of them has ever stood trial, or has even been formally accused of a crime, the Israeli military refers to the inmates of Al-Khiam prison as "terrorists." Their families say they are hostages, held under conditions no better-and no fairer-than those endured by Terry Anderson and the other Western captives in Beirut.

Al-Khiam is a thick-walled fortress built by the French in southern Lebanon in the early years of this century. Now it is operated by the South Lebanon Army (SLA), the mostly Christian proxy militia in Israel's Lebanese "security zone." Roughly 300 people are held at Al-Khiam, including about 30 women. An additional 50 to 60 Lebanese, including Sheik Abdel Karim Obeid, 38, a Shiite Muslim religious leader, are jailed in Israel itself. Now, after years of being held incommunicado, Israel's prisoners are suddenly a key element in the hostage talks.

Israel routinely asserts that the Al-Khiam prisoners are guerrillas who were caught in warlike acts. "These people attempted to cross our border to launch attacks," Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's deputy foreign minister, said last week. But that applies accurately to only a small, minority of the prisoners, according to Amnesty International and other impartial outsiders. Most of the captives are Muslims who fell victim, in one way or another, to Lebanon's sectarian strife-foes of Israel, to be sure, but not terrorists or fighters. Some were taken prisoner when they refused to join the SLA. Some were captured in 1986 when Israeli troops swept through nearby villages after two Israeli soldiers were ambushed by the Shiites. Some were taken because of feuds with the Christians or because their relatives served as militiamen for one of two Shiite groups, Amal and Hizbullah (Party of God). Many of the prisoners, including Sheik Obeid, were seized by the Israelis or the SLA specifically to serve as what all of the captives have now become: bargaining chips.

Last week a reporter asked George Bush what Israel should do to promote a hostage release. The president replied: "I've said that all countries holding hostages ought to release them-people that are not held under procedures of law, but have been taken hostage." That definition seemed to cover many of Israel's captives. Because Bush did not single out Israel by name, the Israeli government did not respond publicly, but its reasons for holding the prisoners were clear. "Many of these Lebanese may be completely innocent," admitted an Israeli military officer. "But this is the Middle East, and the only way to free hostages is to pay the ransom or to take other hostages in return. Nobody has yet found another way."