Israel will not release four Lebanese Moslem Shiite militia leaders who were arrested last week as a condition for the resumption of the suspended military talks on an Israeli troop withdrawal from Lebanon, a senior government official said today.
The official, who asked not to be identified, spoke to reporters following the regular weekly meeting of the Israeli Cabinet. His statement appeared to leave open the possibility that the four prisoners could be released eventually but that this should not be tied to a resumption of the Israeli-Lebanese negotiations that began Thursday in the southern Lebanon town of Naqura.
"We are not going to release the prisoners to continue the discussions," the official said. "The hope and feeling is that the talks will be resumed quite soon. There is a hope that they will be resumed this week."
Lebanese government officials in Beirut announced yesterday that they were suspending the negotiations with Israel in retaliation for the arrests of several leaders of the Shiite Moslem militia Amal.
The negotiations among military delegations from Israel, Lebanon and the United Nations were scheduled for a second session on Monday at the south Lebanon U.N. headquarters at Naqura.
Israeli military forces arrested 11 Amal leaders in the port city of Sidon Thursday, the same day that the negotiations on security arrangements in southern Lebanon opened. Israeli sources said today that four of those arrested are still being held, incuding Mahmoud Fakih, who is described as the key figure in the tug of war between Israel and Lebanon over a resumption of the talks.
Israeli officials described Fakih as the leader of an Amal group that they said has made numerous attacks on Israeli forces in southern Lebanon. They said he has been sought by the Israelis for more than a year and that it was decided to arrest him when the opportunity arose despite the risk that this would complicate the negotiations with the Lebanese.
"It was no mistake," one official said in describing the decision to arrest Fakih and the others on the day the military talks opened.
Lebanon's announcement yesterday that it was breaking off the negotiations after only one meeting apparently caught Israeli officials by surprise. However, the sense in the government here was that the dispute could be resolved and the discussions resumed soon.
David Kimche, the director general of Israel's Foreign Ministry, met late today to discuss the dispute with Jean-Claude Aime, the U.N. Middle East specialist who was instrumental in arranging the negotiations.
Lt. Gen. William Callaghan, the commander of U.N. forces in southern Lebanon, was also said to be active in attempting to bring about a quick resumption of the talks.
Meanwhile, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Richard W. Murphy is due to arrive here from Cairo and meet on Monday with Israeli Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
Murphy, too, may become involved in attempting to resolve the dispute as part of what a Defense Ministry official described as "an international effort" to revive the negotiations.
The Defense Ministry, in a statement that was released by the government press office and attributed to "defense sources," also suggested its willingness to reach an understanding with Amal during the negotiations.
"If the Amal organization will be willing to stop these attacks, by declaration of intention and by deed, Israel will behave in a similar fashion," the statement said. "Otherwise, Israel will see itself as forced to take steps in order to protect Israeli soldiers from these attacks."
For the most part, Israeli officials expressed more annoyance than alarm at the breakoff. One official described the Lebanese action as an "excuse" to cover continuing differences in the Beirut government over the negotiations with Israel.
Most of the opposition to the negotiations is centered in Lebanon's Shiite community and its political-military organization, Amal.
The leader of Amal, Nabih Berri, who is the minister for southern Lebanon in the Lebanese government, was apparently the driving force behind the decision to suspend the negotiations after the arrests.
The Israeli official said Israel remained interested in talking to Lebanon about security arrangements but would now demand assurances that the negotiations not be constantly interrupted each time there is a dispute. "We can't tolerate a situation where every time we don't agree about something there is a suspension of the talks," he said.