JERUSALEM (Jun. 24)
Israeli lawmakers are growing increasingly sensitive to the temper of American public opinion with respect to the 40 U.S. hostages held by Shiite Moslemsin Beirut who demand that Israel free 766 Shiites in the Atlit detention camp. The concern here is that Israel, by not complying, will be held responsible for the hostages’ fate.
Israel released 31 of the Atlit prisoners today and returned them to Lebanon in a move it insists was in no way linked to the hostage crisis. When Premier Shimon Peres appeared before the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Security Committee to brief its members on the release, committee chairman Abba Eban reminded him that Israel’s primary asset “for decades” has been sympathetic public opinion and Israel must always be conscious and alert to this.
Other committee members spoke critically of Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s remarks on the ABC-TV “Nightline” program last Wednesday in which he insisted that the hijack of TWA Flight 847 was purely an “American problem.” In later media statements, Rabin and other Israeli leaders made it a point to express support and sympathy for the U.S. and the American hostages.
SHULTZ: ‘PROBLEM IS NOT ISRAEL’
Secretary of State George Shultz was asked by reporters yesterday if the American people might begin to blame Israel if the hostage crisis was prolonged. Shultz replied, “It’s possible, but not justified, and I think it’s important to separate those problems as I have been trying to do.”
“The problem is not Israel, the problem is not some evil about America. The problem is the people that hijacked that plane, who murdered an American, and who are holding the Americans there hostage. That’s the problem,” Shultz said.
Both Israel and the U.S. share the dilemma. Both have stressed that they would make no concessions to the hijackers. The Reagan Administration has said repeatedly it would not ask Israel to make concessions. Nevertheless, Washington has not yet devised a way to secure release of the hostages, at least not as far as the public has been informed,
Peres, in his briefing to the Knesset committee, repeated the official position that the release of 31 Shiite prisoners from Atlit was not linked to the hostage crisis but was part of the ongoing repatriation of Lebanese nationals detained by Israel, and that its pace would depend on the security situation in south Lebanon.
But most Israelis are skeptical of this line. (See separate story.) It is generally believed by the public and the Israeli media that the release of the 31 Shiites was a test to see what response it would elicit from the hijackers. The response was negative.
Deputy Premier and Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir, interviewed on the ABC-TV “Good Morning America” program today, said Israel’s standing in U.S. public opinion was not a consideration in the release of the 31. But observers here are convinced that the government’s concern in that respect played an important part. Policymakers hope the release will help end the wave of public and media criticism of Israel in the U.S.
ISRAELI INIATIVE URGED
Meanwhile, Deputy Premier David Levy, another leader of Likud, called today for an “Israeli initiative” in the hijack crisis. He refused to say the initiative should be release of all of the 766 Shiite prisoners. Likud has been adamantly against their release lest it appear to be a surrender to the hijackers.
Levy, who appeared on a radio interview, did not say what sort of initiative he had in mind. However he urged close and constant coordination with the U.S. and warned that the hijackers must be denied their objective of driving a wedge between Jerusalem and Washington.
Nevertheless, Israel is distancing itself from the hostage crisis. Yesterday it rejected an offer by the Austrian government to mediate between Jerusalem and Nabih Berri, leader of the Shiite militia, Amal, who has undertaken the role of go-between in the hostage crisis. David Kimche, Director General of the Foreign Ministry, told the Austrian Ambassador that Vienna’s offer of good offices “should be directed at Mr. Berri, not at us.”