JERUSALEM (Feb. 10)
Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin made it clear in the Knesset today that Israel has good reason to continue to try to capture terrorist leaders even though its efforts were thwarted when a private Libyan plane intercepted last Tuesday turned out not to have been carrying the terrorist chiefs believed to have been aboard.
Rabin also flatly denied reports from the U.S. that carrier-based American warplanes of the Sixth Fleet are protecting EI AI flights from retaliation threatened by Libyan leader Col. Muammar Qaddafi EI AI planes are protected from terrorist attacks, “and not by the Sixth Fleet,” Rabin declared. He would not elaborate.
The Defense Minister spoke for the government in reply to a non-confidence motion introduced by Meir Wilner of the Hadash (Communist) Party. Wilner denounced the interception as an act of piracy. Rabin retorted that Israel would not “give terrorist leaders insurance policies.” He said the interception was an expression of that policy.
‘A MISTAKE WAS MADE’
“I will not blur the fact that a mistake was made,” he told the Knesset. The terrorists believed to be in the plane were not in it. But the nine passengers, all Syrian political figures, were by no means mere innocents, Rabin said. They were members of the Syrian Ba’ath party returning home from a conference in Tripoli, Libya, of representatives of Arab radical groups and terrorists who certainly discussed terrorism and may have planned new terrorist acts.
Nevertheless, the plane and its passengers and crew were released after a brief interrogation at an air base in northern Israel and allowed to continue their journey.
If the terrorist leaders had been caught by Israel, Rabin said, “I am convinced it would have been a grave blow to their organization. I am convinced that it would have helped us find out more about the acts of terror committed by them, and others being planned by them. And it would have also helped us to find out more about the fate of our MIAs (soldiers missing in action in Lebanon),whose whereabouts are still unknown after more than three years,” the Defense Minister said.
He dismissed Wilner’s claim that the interception would surely invite reprisals in which innocent people would suffer. Israel is prepared for any “acts of madness” that Qaddafi or others might try to perpetrate, Rabin said. He stressed however that the terrorists didn’t need the interception as a pretext to strike at Israel. It is their constant goal no matter what Israel does, he said.
Rabin and Premier Shimon Peres shouldered full responsibility for the embarrassing error last week, apparently the result of faulty intelligence. But Peres headed off demands for a full-scale Cabinet debate on policy in this sensitive area. The demands came mainly from Labor ministers. The matter is expected to be discussed at a meeting of the 10-member Inner Cabinet, which is considered more leak-proof than the Cabinet as a whole.