PRESIDENT Reagan's response to the week-long hostage ordeal in Lebanon was appropriately measured. He showed a greater understanding of the need for active patience in such situations, and the limits of threats and ultimatums, than did candidate Reagan in February 1980, when Jimmy Carter was still frustrated by his American hostage watch in Iran: Mr. Reagan then said an administration should, within a fortnight, set a date certain for a hostage release and privately cite the consequences for the kidnappers if this were not done. One line of solution in the present instance, if the safety of the 40 Americans kidnapped by the Lebanese Shiite hijackers is the first concern, is cooperation from Israel in releasing the 766 Shiite prisoners it holds, most of them transferred to Israeli territory upon Israel's quitting of Lebanon. At the time Israel moved the prisoners, against international rules regarding prisoners of war, it was said that it was setting the stage for just such an event. Israel had previously engaged in one-sided prisoner exchanges with the Arabs, most recently its May 20 freeing of 1,150 Arab prisoners for 3 Israeli soldiers. Precedents had been set. That today's prisoners are American citizens, not Israelis, is more a cipher for the linkage between American support for Israel and the latter's actions than it is an excuse for Israel not to come to the aid of the Reagan administration.
This is not to dismiss arguments against setting other dangerous precedents: against encouraging terrorists again to seek pressure against Israel or another country by kidnapping citizens of a friendly country for purposes of leverage. Attempts to negotiate separate settlements for American prisoners with Jewish and with gentile backgrounds would gravely complicate matters. But Israel has a heavy investment in American confidence. Israel was already in the process of releasing some of the Shiite prisoners. Holding them longer does Israel little good. The Shia in Lebanon have given signs that they want to be free of any Palestinian presence, for their own reasons. They can be allies of Israel in this.
The formula apparently being sought is to have an intermediary, such as the International Red Cross or the United Nations, arrange the release of the hostages on the basis of an Israeli statement that the Shiite prisoners will be freed once the hijack victims are freed. The way around the appearance of caving in to terrorist demands by the United States or by Israel is to emphasize that the taking of the Trans World Airlines hostages interrupted a process already under way.
Movement in negotiations is needed. In the volatile world of Lebanese confessional and family factionalism, the usefulness of Shiite leader Nabih Berri as intermediary partly depends on the American response. If Washington seems to be dragging its feet, or to be preparing retaliatory acts, it could be faced with negotiating with the anonymous, deadly chaos of Beirut's streets for the release of its American prisoners.
Mr. Reagan mentioned steps to avoid similar episodes -- pressure on the Athens government to end its airport security negligence, a travel advisory to Americans to bypass Athens, and a possible expansion of an armed sky marshal presence on flights of US carriers abroad. Such proposals are expected of a president at this stage of a crisis. Athens deserved the rebuke, as terrorist experts have been saying since this episode began.
How to secure safe return of hostages without endangering the lives of other innocents in the future is no small matter. The President and other parties seeking the hostages' release should be able to count on broad public understanding in meeting this challenge.