Why The Hostage Takers Are Playing `Let's Make A Deal'

Lebanon's radical Shiite groups and their Iranian backers are conceding that hostage-taking has failed as a way to squeeze concessions from the West. That acknowledgment is the key to their release of American Edward Tracy and two other Western hostages in early August. Now, as the U. N. seeks to negotiate a grand swap of Western hostages and Arab and Israeli prisoners, the brutal era of hostage politics in the Middle East appears to be nearing an end.

One obstacle to early release of other American captives could be a demand by the radical Shiites of the Hezbollah militia, which is behind most hostage seizures, for guarantees against U. S. reprisals. Washington is unlikely to give such assurances. But in Lebanon, where 10 Westerners remain captive, the hostage-takers are increasingly isolated. Opposition to them is growing among middle-class Shiite businessmen, who have found themselves hampered in international dealings by being stereotyped as terrorists. "It's commonly recognized in Lebanon, particularly by Shiites, that holding hostages has not worked," says A. Richard Norton, an expert on the Middle East at West Point.

REALPOLITIK. For George Bush, the captives freed so far are a payoff for his realpolitik approach to the hostage drama, in contrast to the emotional swings of Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter. By downplaying the hostages, Bush has lowered their value to their captors. And by warming up ties with Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, despite his harsh rule, Bush has encouraged Assad to turn up the heat on the hostage-takers.

Bush also thinks he can keep the pressure mn Iran's President Hashemi Rafsanjani to help win the captives' release. Although Iranian radicals in key posts are Hezbollah's primary backers, Rafsanjani is eager for Western investment and wants a big role in the new gulf security system that Washington is trying to shape. But he knows the U. S. will be an obstacle to Iranian ambitions until the Americans are freed.

A big gainer from an end to the hostage impasse would be war-torn Lebanon, where Hezbollah militia continue to fight in the South against the Israelis and their puppet South Lebanon Army. As part of any swap, the hostage-takers say Israel must free 375 Arab captives, including Sheik Abdul Karim Obeid, a Shiite leader kidnapped by the Israelis. As a prerequisite for hostage talks, Jerusalem has demanded the return of seven missing Israeli soldiers or an accounting for them. But Israel and Lebanon could both gain from release of the Arab prisoners because it "would remove the raison d'etre for Hezbollah" in Lebanon, Norton says.

'BUFFER ZONE.' Easing the Lebanon stalemate could also boost prospects for the Mideast peace conference that the U. S. and Soviet Union hope to convene in October. While a breakthrough on the core Arab-Israeli issue of trading land for peace seems unlikely, Syria and Israel could make the conference an early success by agreeing on an Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon in return for security guarantees from Damascus. "You could create in Southern Lebanon an effective buffer zone that would enhance security on both sides," says Brookings Institution Middle East expert William B. Quandt.

The hostage-takers, too, have their eyes on the coming conference. By asking the U. N. to orchestrate a hostage swap, the radicals may be trying to open the way for a bigger U. N. role in the talks than Israel wants. But that is a concession Jerusalem will find hard to refuse if prospects for freedom of the hostages continue to brighten.

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