For Israel, the script now is familiar: Hostages are seized in Beirut, and their captors say they will be killed unless Arabs held in Israeli prisons are freed. But this time, Israeli officials insist, the demands of a previously unknown group - Islamic Jihad for the Liberation of Palestine - will not be met. Israel will not release Arab prisoners in exchange for American hostages.
At press time, the deadline imposed by the captors of university lecturers - three Americans and one Indian - seized in west Beirut Jan. 24 was only hours away. Islamic Jihad (``holy war'') for the Liberation of Palestine threatened to kill the lecturers by midnight Monday if Israel did not release 400 unspecified ``Arab'' prisoners. Israel's prime minister, defense minister, and foreign minister all said they would not release any prisoners.
At the same time, Israeli officials left the door open to the possibility that they would be willing to negotiate a prisoner exchange in order to win freedom for an Israeli navigator who was shot down in south Lebanon late last year. Nabih Berri, the Lebanese leader of the Shiite Muslim Amal militia, said from Damascus Saturday that he would consider exchanging the Israeli navigator for 400 prisoners.
There is an unspoken motivation behind Israel's determination not to give in to the latest demands, analysts here say.
The government is anxious to reverse the damage Israeli officials now privately acknowledge was caused by two major exchanges made by Israel in the last two years. The first involved the release of 1,100 Palestinian prisoners to a splinter group of the Palestine Liberation Organization in exchange for three Israeli soldiers captured in Lebanon. The second was the release in the summer of 1985 of 766 Lebanese Shiites to secure the freedom of 39 TWA passengers and crew held hostage in west Beirut by Shiite gunmen.
According to Israeli sources, the United States has not so far pressured Israel to release the 400 prisoners for the four captives in west Beirut. The Reagan administration is still reeling from the aftermath of the Iranian arms-for-hostages exchange and eager to show that it has returned to its policy of not dealing with terrorists.
During the 1985 TWA hostage crisis, there had been tension between Israel and the United States because Washington seemed to be sending mixed signals to Israel about what it wanted Israel to do. Publicly, the Reagan administration said it would not deal with terrorists or give into their demands. Privately, they let it be known that Israel was expected to release the Shiites it held prisoner.
For most Israelis, there is no contradiction in their government's willingness to trade Arab prisoners for captured Israeli soldiers but not for captured American civilians. Trading for Israelis is considered a necessary evil, to be undertaken when there is no option of freeing them through military means. Trading for other nationals is considered an unreasonable demand that will only lead to ever greater demands.
``We cannot abandon our soldiers,'' said one official, who spoke on the condition that he not be named. ``It is the duty of a country to protect its own people, especially soldiers who are shot down in the midst of a military operation. But there is a limit. Why does Israel have to pay the price for the decision of these people to stay in Lebanon out of their dedication to a cause? Even the State Department is saying it is not willing to deal with the terrorists holding these people. Why should we?''
Israel's previous exchanges now are widely regarded here as mistakes that encouraged extremists in anarchic west Beirut to take hostages whenever they could find them. The Israelis now seem determined to reestablish their credentials as people who cannot be intimidated and to emphasize that there are limits to the lengths Israel will go to free even its own citizens.
In a Sunday interview on Army Radio, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said that ``Israel cannot and will not operate according to ultimatums.'' Mr. Peres said that ``if someone has a suggestion, please approach Israel in an orderly way.'' Mr. Peres said that Israel did not consider Mr. Berri's offer to have been made ``in an orderly way.''
On Monday, Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin repeated his earlier warning that Israel holds Berri responsible for the safety of the navigator.
But other officials said it was not clear to them whether Berri retained enough power within his own militia to deliver the navigator, let alone to persuade the faction that is holding the four lecturers to deliver them.
A senior Western diplomat said Monday that he agreed with Israel's refusal to simply release 400 Arab prisoners.
``The Israelis always dealt with these guys [hostage takers],'' the diplomat said. ``But they deal for Israelis. Mr. Rabin said it best when he said that they are not a bank of prisoners to exchange for hostages for whomever in the world needs them.''
They want to get their own people out,'' the diplomat continued, ``but they don't want to be subject to blackmail in the interests of every people in the world. You cannot expect the Israelis to allow themselves to be blackmailed because of things that happen to Frenchmen or Guineans.''