JERUSALEM -- Foreign Minister Moshe Arens said Sunday the abduction of a radical Moslem clergyman was an 'important card' held by Israel in the possible release of Israeli and Western hostages in Lebanon.
But Israeli officials were tight-lipped on their next move concerning Sheikh Abdel Karim Obeid, a leader of the pro-Iranian Hezbollah movement in Lebanon who was abducted by Israel more than a week ago.
They also declined to respond directly to statements by Hezbollah officials that included a death threat against captive Israeli soldiers and the rejection of any negotiations with Israel until Obeid is released.
'Statements are conflictingand you never know who is issuing them or why,' one Israeli government source said. 'If you want to negotiate seriously there are better ways.'
In line with that reasoning, Israeli leaders forbade discussion of the Obeid affair during the weekly Cabinet meeting for fear of leaks. They reserved any debate for Israel's six-member inner Cabinet, consisting of top leaders, Army Radio reported.
One Hezbollah official raised the possibility Sunday that one of three Israeli soldiers held prisoner might be killed.
Voice of Islam Radio in Lebanon Sunday quoted Hezbollah official Hussein al Musawi as saying, 'If it is in the interest of Islam and the oppressed to kill one of the Israeli soldiers, then Hezbollah will do it.'
'It's now the fourth Hezbollah statement since Thursday night,' Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Alon Liel said. 'They don't even resemble each other. It's impossible to respond to them since they do not give us a picture of Hezbollah's real intentions.
'The only way for Hezbollah to make clear to us what the organization is ready to do at the moment is through one of the international organizations dealing with us. The most obvious is the Red Cross,' Liel said. 'I think the best thing now is not to treat each statement separate, but to wait until a serious signal will come through another channel, a diplomatic one, not a public one.'
The larger 12-member Cabinet received a briefing Sunday from Arens and Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin on the 'developments and events' since Israeli forces abducted Obeid July 28 from the south Lebanese village of Jibsheet.
After Israel refused to release Obeid but offered to swap him and other Moslem Shiites held by Israel for Israeli and Western hostages in Lebanon, an offshoot Hezbollah group claimed Monday it had killed U.S. Marine Lt. Col. William Higgins.
The hostage crisis, which included a death threat against another American hostage, Joseph Cicippio, strained U.S.-Israeli relations. But Arens told Army Radio Sunday that Washington realized 'that to serve their interests and our interests that we have to stand together against terrorism.'
'We need to coordinate our stands so we can have a chance to succeed,' Arens said. 'And we have done such in the past several days, and as a result we have a chance to succeed.'
Arens said he has been in contact almost daily with Secretary of State James Baker and said he told Baker that one of the successes in last week's Lebanese hostage crisis was the evidence that Cicippio was alive and 'his chances of staying alive are stronger.'
In response to questions concerning hostage negotiations, Arens said he believed such talks could only take place through channels considered by Israel to be '100 percent trustworthy, such as the Red Cross.'
'At this stage there is nothing new. It is clear that we hold an important card,' Arens said, referring to Obeid.
'It is possible that the other side will be willing to take part in the type of exchange set down by the defense minister under which we are willing to give up all the Shiites in our hands, including the Sheikh Obeid, in exchange for the release of all hostages that are in the hands of the Shiites (in Lebanon), including our soldiers,' Arens said.
Israeli officials have said the primary motivation behind Obeid's abduction, authorized by the government two months ago, had been to secure the freedom of three Israeli soldiers held in Lebanon since 1986. Rabin said Obeid has been a central figure in Hezbollah since 1983, and his activities including planning the abduction of Higgins and two of the Israelis.