The latest round of Middle East hostage taking has forced the Reagan administration into a potentially tight diplomatic corner. If the United States asks Israel to negotiate for the release of three Americans seized last month in Beirut, it risks further damage to its policy of not making concessions to terrorists.
But if the US sticks to its no-concessions policy, weakened in the aftermath of the recent Iran-contra disclosures, the lives of the three American college professors, plus an Indian colleague kidnapped at the same time, could be placed in further jeopardy.
Reagan administration officials continue to insist that, despite concern over the fate of the hostages, the US will not bend its policy by leaning on Israel to make concessions to obtain their release.
``We have asked for no deals - directly, indirectly, or inferentially,'' says a knowledgeable State Department official.
But news reports from Europe and the Middle East indicate that secret talks may now be under way that would link the return of the four Beirut University College professors, plus 22 other foreign hostages in Lebanon and an Israeli airman, to the freeing of 400 Arab prisoners held by Israel.
The Israeli government said yesterday that reports of a package deal involving all foreign hostages, which first appeared in the Israeli newspaper Davar, were ``completely baseless.''
An Israeli statement conceded, however, that contacts were being made to secure the release of seven Israelis missing in Lebanon since 1982.
Davar, which has close ties to the Labor Party in Israel, indicated that negotiations on a package deal were being held with the knowledge of both Washington and Israel.
The trade, which would also involve the release of an Israeli airman downed over Lebanon last October, is reportedly being brokered by the Swiss and Syrian governments and the Geneva-based International Committee to the Red Cross.
The three American professors and an Indian teacher were kidnapped Jan. 24 by members of the Islamic Jihad for the Liberation of Palestine. The group is one of several loosely tied to Hizbullah, a pro-Iranian Shiite Muslim extremist organization in Lebanon.
The kidnappers had threatened to kill the four by midnight Monday, but they lifted the deadline pending negotiations for the release of the 400 Palestinian prisoners.
Diplomatic observers say any swap involving the Palestinians could be politically risky for the Israeli government, which weathered a torrent of public criticism after a lopsided prisoner exchange two years ago. In June 1985 Israel released 1,150 Arab prisoners in return for three Israelis held by a pro-Syrian guerrilla faction in Lebanon.
Analysts say this may be one reason that Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, in an ambiguously worded statement, told reporters Tuesday he would not deal for the release of the Americans without a ``direct request'' from the US to do so.
``Shamir cannot be party to any deal unless he can be seen bringing the US along with him,'' says Geoffrey Kemp, a Middle East specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. ``If he can say the US requested it and in the bargain we got our guy back, it's more palatable for [the public] at home.''
Israeli sensitivities were ruffled when the US applied, in the words of Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin, ``unofficial pressure designed to make us volunteer'' the release the 776 Arab prisoners to help free 40 Americans held in Beirut after the hijacking of TWA Flight 847 in July 1985.
But US officials insist they are not asking Israel or anyone else to make concessions for the return of the Americans.
``We believe in no deals,'' Secretary of State George Shultz said on an NBC News telecast Wednesday night. ``We don't encourage other countries to make deals. We discourage it.''
Asked if this US position had been formally communicated to Israel, Secretary Shultz replied, ``They know very well our views, and [this] program is another way of expressing it.''
Shultz and Prime Minister Shamir are expected to discuss ways of dealing with terrorist incidents next week when Shamir pays his first visit to Washington since becoming prime minister in October.