Israel's conservative government, trailing badly in opinion polls with less than a month to national elections, is making what is widely seen here as an audacious bid to turn the tables by securing the release of six war prisoners held in Syria.
''Of course, it is part of election politics,'' remarked a young Israeli. It was a typical response to the announcement Wednesday of a deal to swap the Israelis for a large group of Syrian POWS.
The fact that several other captive Israelis, held in Syria by Palestinian guerrilla factions, were apparently not included in the deal strengthens this sense for Israelis aware of the details of the exchange.
The question here is whether the prisoner swap will succeed in turning around the ruling Likud coalition's prospects.
The consensus reply from both ordinary Israelis and local political analysts sampled late Wednesday was that - with more than three weeks ahead for jubilation over the exchange to wear off - it is at least possible the move won't have a major effect on the campaign.
Wednesday's announcement came as the opposition Labor Party looked in good shape to unseat the Likud after seven years in power. But some local pundits added that such a result could, oddly enough, hand longer-term gains to Israel's single most fiery conservative: former Defense Minister Ariel Sharon. He is a rival to Premier Yitzhak Shamir for leadership within the Likud.
The argument is that an electoral defeat for Likud would mark the beginning of the end of Mr. Shamir as leader of the Herut Party, the largest Likud faction. And a term of rule under Labor Party leader Shimon Peres - publicly pledged to tackling the necessarily complex business of getting Israeli troops out of Lebanon and making peace with Jordan - could furnish perfect ammunition for the sharp-tongued Mr. Sharon to bid for the Herut leadership.
Yet the announcement of the prisoner swap served to emphasize that, with not much time to go before the July 23 elections, the result is far from perfectly predictable.
For one thing, most Israeli voters have traditionally paid close attention to a nightly 45-minute montage of television messages by the rival parties starting a month before election day. The first transmission came only two days ago.
Another imponderable is how coalition politics will effect who forms the next government. Never in an Israeli election, since the birth of the state 36 years ago, has any one party done well enough to rule alone.
This means that the shape of the next government will likely depend on post-electoral horse trading by Labor and Likud among a host of smaller parties. Most, though not all, of these are more ideologically compatible with the present government than with Labor.
Still, amid popular grumbling here over the nation's jet-powered inflation rate and the festering war in Lebanon, Labor has been steadily widening its lead in opinion polls. The most recent sampling by the country's top pollster predicted Labor would garner about 55 seats in the 120-member Israeli parliament , almust surely enough to form a government.
One source in the Likud has acknowledged privately that his senior cohorts are worried by the poll trend - especially since they had hoped to repeat the pattern of Israel's last campaign, in 1981, when the Likud slowly but surely overcame a huge early deficit to edge to victory on election day.
So far, Likud seems to have felt seriously the effects of several disadvantages that did not figure in the 1981 race. These include the fact that charismatic former Prime Minister Menachem Begin has gone into reclusive retirement, and that Israeli inflation, well over 100 percent three years ago, is now pushing closer to a 400 percent annual clip.
The opposition, meanwhile, has managed to paper over internal rivalries that helped the Likud last time around. But the main difference between 1984 and 1981 , at least before the announcement of the prisoner swap, was deemed to be that Shamir was using the tools of incumbency less effectively than did Mr. Begin in 1981.
He benefited, for instance, from the Israeli bombing of Iraq's nuclear reactor during the campaign and by slashing duties on prized consumer goods like videotape machines. Wednesday, Israeli newspapers spoke of resistance so far by both Shamir and Finance Minister Yigael Cohen-Orgad to party pressure for the kind of ''election economics'' the Begin government turned to in 1981.
Meanwhile, the Israel-Syria prisoner swap is scheduled to take place today on the UN-policed Golan Heights. Reports from Damascus suggest the six Israelis, all captured in Lebanon, would be handed back along with the bodies of five other Israeli soldiers killed there. In return, Israel would reportedly release some 290 captive Syrians and the bodies of about 75 others.
Three more Israelis remain listed as missing in action. But Israeli sources say privately there have been signs recently that these, including one dual US-Israeli citizen, are alive and in the hands of Syrian-based Palestinians.
A political insider said: ''The Syrians have been offering for some time to swap the prisoners under their direct control. But the government has been saying, 'No. The other prisoners, since they're held by Palestinians who are under the heavy influence of Syria, must also be included.' Now, the Israeli position changed.''
He added he had no doubt that ''the election campaign is the factor.''