Israel has dismissed suggestions that it release 400 Arab prisoners in exchange for the lives of the latest American hostages in Lebanon, as demanded by their captors. Prisoner exchanges are nothing new to Israeli governments. But, in this case, senior ministers are making it clear that any request from the United States to consider a deal will be studiously ignored. Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir Monday called the idea ``out of the question.''
Earlier, Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin likewise rejected the demands, saying that Israel ``is not an address or an international bank for terrorists, where any country that wants to incur the release of one of its citizens can come and expect us to pay the price.''
Government spokesmen, while confirming that consultations are under way with the US over the fate of the American hostages, stress there is no question of the US asking Israel to comply with the terrorist demands. Given US sensibilities over the arms-for-hostages deal with Iran, and the need to bring official policy on terrorism back into line with its rhetoric, such a request is highly unlikely anyway, analysts here say.
The prisoner-for-hostage demand came in a statement delivered to a news agency in Beirut on Saturday. The previously unheard of Islamic Jihad for the Liberation of Palestine said it would set the four men free in exchanges for ``the release of 400 holy war strugglers held in Zionist-Nazi jails in Palestine.''
The four - three Americans and an Indian - were kidnapped a week ago Saturday at the University College in west Beirut. Their captors said they would be killed one by one if the demands were not met within one week.
Who the kidnappers are remains a mystery, as indeed does the identity of the 400 men they are seeking to have freed. Observers in Israel are divided over whether they are Shiite Muslim prisoners of Israel's proxy South Lebanon Army at the Khiam camp inside Lebanon, or Palestinian detainees from the Israeli-occupied territories. The ambiguity of the group's title suggests either, or both.
According to observers, the kidnappers were presumably encouraged in their demands by previous exchanges worked out between Israel and various Arab groups and countries. But, they say, several circumstances today make the possibility of another deal remote.
In the last few years, there have been two major exchanges: in November 1983, when Israel set free some 4,000 mainly Palestinian prisoners captured during the 1982 invasion of Lebanon in exchange for six of its soldiers; in May 1985, when in exchange for three more soldiers, Israel freed 1,150 Palestinians from jails in Israel and the occupied territories.
In addition, throughout 1985, Israel released in stages a further 1,200 mainly Shiite prisoners captured during its three-year occupation of southern Lebanon.
Israel came under considerable domestic pressure because of the disproportionate nature of the first two exchanges. The 1985 deal drew particularly heavy criticism because about half the released Palestinians were allowed to resettle in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Many of those released had been convicted of attacks - in some cases lethal - on Jews.
In view of the outcry over the 1985 exchange, which many Israelis feel was a major policy mistake, observers say a further release is highly unlikely.
Analysts say a second factor is that, at least officially, all previous releases have been made only in return for captured Israeli soldiers. Israeli governments have set great store by the length to which they are prepared to go to secure their men's release. They have justified massive past exchanges of Arab prisoners by the need to reassure troops in combat that their capture by enemies is not tantamount to a death sentence or life imprisonment.
But the captives in today's crisis are not Israelis. They are also not prisoners of war, but simply hostages. While it has always been Israel's policy to do everything to free captured soldiers, it has also always been Israel's policy never to make deals with hostage-takers.
There were suggestions that some of the Shiite prisoners released in mid-1985 were allowed to go as part of a deal with the hijackers of the TWA jet at Beirut Airport, but Israel has always vehemently denied this.