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NEWS ANALYSIS : Hostage Drama Played Out on Media's Stage

August 08, 1989|DANIEL WILLIAMS and NICK B. WILLIAMS Jr. | Times Staff Writers

JERUSALEM — The deputy Israeli foreign minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, rose from the long table in the ministry's Situation Room and, with a purposeful gait, strode to the door, leaving his advisers on the hostage crisis shuffling papers.

End of meeting? No, a Foreign Ministry official who was present recalled later. The exit was staged for television. As soon as the camera operators packed up, Netanyahu returned and began to sift through the latest information on the give-and-take over Israeli and foreign captives in Lebanon.

Welcome to hostage theater: In Jerusalem and Beirut, the life-and-death bargaining for prisoners under control of unpredictable extremist militias is being adapted to the needs and potential of the world's media--notably television, but also newspapers.

In Jerusalem, the methods are high-tech and slick. In Beirut, they are shadowy, unsophisticated and sometimes gruesome.

Media exploitation is not new in the world of hostage-taking. In past dramas, televised performances by airliner hijackers have kept audiences riveted to their screens for weeks on end.

But in the case of Israel, this time there is something of a departure from past practice. Even though Israel is trying to bring about the release of its own prisoners, whom it believes are in mortal danger, the government is vying with the hostage-holders for the media limelight rather than carrying on quiet diplomacy. Israeli officials say they are not going to leave the field to their adversaries and that they intend to respond with carefully worded but forceful comments of their own.

Capture of Obeid

In part, Israel was forced onto the screen by the negative reaction abroad to its capture of Sheik Abdel Karim Obeid, a leader in southern Lebanon of the pro-Iranian Hezbollah movement. After the uproar over his capture, Israeli officials feared that Israel would be blamed for any harm to the hostages rather than the extremist Shiite Muslims who hold them.

When the tide of negative opinion began to flow away from Israel, a new motive emerged: to keep the Western world, especially the United States, focused on the goal of pressuring the Shiites and their patrons in Iran and Syria to release all the captives, including three Israeli soldiers said to be held by Hezbollah.

"This is a problem that will be handled as a part of worldwide activity," an official of the Israeli Foreign Ministry said. "Thus, we have to communicate throughout the world."

The Foreign Ministry's Situation Room is both a source and receptacle for global information on government action and public opinion. If a government wavers off course, Israel is ready to react, either by informing its embassies or directly appearing on the screen.

"In a war room, you move military forces," an official intimately involved with Situation Room activities said. "Here we move political forces."

The room was set up a year ago so that the Foreign Ministry could coordinate its public and diplomatic problems. Behind its steel doors are computerized facts on file, telexes and, of course, a bank of television sets that can show broadcasts originating worldwide. On Monday there was Jane Pauley on NBC-TV's "Today" show on one screen and a Soviet opera production from Moscow on another.

Netanyahu, who heads a hostage task force at the Foreign Ministry, goes to the Situation Room about every three hours, and one of his chief concerns is said to be preventing conflicting messages from being sent out from Jerusalem. Israel's coalition government is often the source of cacophonic opinions on a wide variety of topics.

"Everything that goes out must come through here," one Foreign Ministry official said. He said only three ministers are authorized to speak during the crisis: Netanyahu, Foreign Minister Moshe Arens and Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

Honing Demands Publicly

The extensive use of television--all three of the officials appeared Sunday on American television--throws into question Israel's pledge that it will not answer Shiite demands over the air. In fact, Israel has honed its demands publicly. On Sunday, Rabin said on American television that Israel's offer to exchange Obeid and other prisoners for the foreign hostages will be valid only if Israel recovers its soldiers held in Lebanon.

Meanwhile, the methods of the militant Shiite groups are comparatively crude. One group delivered a gruesome videotape as proof that it had hanged Lt. Col. William R. Higgins, the American Marine abducted last year in southern Lebanon. Another American hostage, Joseph J. Cicippio, was heard on a tape reading from an awkwardly phrased script, pleading for Israel to release Obeid lest Cicippio meet the same fate.

In Beirut, cassettes and written messages from the hostage-holders are delivered by anonymous messengers, often to night guards at newspapers, wire service bureaus or broadcast outlets.

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