TEL AVIV (Dec. 4)
A bizarre hostage-taking incident in the Soviet Union that ended at Tel Aviv’s Ben-Gurion Airport on Friday won Israel a warm official embrace from the Kremlin over the weekend.
In a rare and apparently sincere show of gratitude by the Communist superpower to the Jewish state, Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze issued a statement commending the Israeli government for handling this “barbaric deed” in a “noble and humanitarian way.”
He said it set an example for intergovernmental relations all over the world. The statement was televised in Moscow and reported by Tass, the official Soviet news agency.
The glowing praise was in response to the way Israel dealt, firmly and without bloodshed, with the potentially explosive situation caused by five Soviet nationals who had themselves flown to Tel Aviv in an aircraft extorted from the Soviet authorities in exchange for child hostages.
All were deported back to the USSR Saturday to face trial.
To convey his message to Jerusalem officially, Shevardnadze summoned Arye Levin, head of the Israeli consular delegation that has been in Moscow since September, virtually ignored by Soviet officialdom.
Levin, who had been trying in vain to obtain an audience with any Soviet diplomat above the most junior consular level, found himself face to face with the foreign minister, one of the most powerful men in the regime of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
SOVIET PRAISE TELEVISED
Even more extraordinary was the presence of television cameras in Shevardnadze’s office, recording the meeting for Soviet viewers.
Shevardnadze was quoted by Tass as telling Levin, “We thank the Israeli authorities for showing such goodwill and decisive suppression of the illegal action. Such norms of civilized inter-governmental relations must be firmly established in the modern world.”
In Jerusalem, Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres expressed appreciation for the message Saturday night. He said he hoped that “ways to deepen the understanding between the two countries” would “soon be found.”
He also noted that the consular delegation the Soviets have had in Israel since June 1987 and the Israeli team in Moscow functioned as full-fledged representation. He said he hoped this arrangement would continue.
Israel won praise and respect from many other countries as the world suspensefully watched the latest hostage-hijacking drama unfold.
In the end, Israel got an opportunity to demonstrate its humanitarian side. While agreeing that the hijackers were criminals, it conditioned their deportation on a written pledge, given by Moscow, that they would not be subjected to the death penalty.
The incident began last Thursday afternoon in Ordzhonikidze, a town in the Soviet Caucasus.
Pavel Vakshinitz, a bus driver said to have a criminal record; his wife, Tamara Mikhaelovna Vakshinitz; and three armed accomplices seized a shool bus carrying 30 children and their teacher.
They drove to the town hall, where the bus driver demanded $2 million in rubles and foreign currency, and a plane to fly out of the country. He threatened to kill the children if his demands were not met.
NONE OF CRIMINALS JEWISH
Vakshinitz reportedly demanded an Ilyushin T-76 cargo plane equipped with a ramp to drive vehicles aboard. His intention apparently was to drive the busload of children onto the plane.
But as it turned out, he released the children. The five boarded the Ilyushin jet with two bags of currency, three pistols and a sawed-off shotgun, with which they forced the eight-member crew to follow orders.
The three accomplices were identified as Vladimir Morlovod, German Vishnikov and Vladimir Anastayezev. None of the criminals is Jewish.
Tamara Vakshinitz subsequently was cleared of criminal intent. Soviet authorities affirmed that she had been forced by her husband to board the school bus and then the plane.
According to media reports, the hijackers were considering three destinations: Pakistan, South Africa and Israel. They said they chose Israel “because we heard that last month’s elections there had resulted in the formation of an anti-communist government.”
Moscow has seemed to be seeking a thaw in relations with Israel this past year. The exchange of consular delegations was the first official diplomatic contact since the Soviets severed ties with Israel in 1967.
Whether the hijacking incident will significantly advance the process remains to be seen.
Israeli envoy Levin, who has kept a low profile in Moscow since his arrival, met for 40 minutes with Shevardnadze Saturday, during which overtures seemed to have been made by both sides, in the opaque and oblique language of diplomacy.
At the start of the meeting, Shevardnadze asked the Israeli if he was not freezing in Moscow’s frigid winter.
Levin, an experienced diplomat, replied that the Soviet capital was cold indeed, but there was “much warmth” in it that needs only to be found.
The foreign minister reportedly was pleased with the response and commended Levin for it.
A TELEX FROM MOSCOW
Israel become embroiled in the bizarre incident on Friday morning, when the Israeli Civil A viation Authority received a telexed message from its Moscow counterpart — the first such direct communication in many years. It asked if Ben-Gurion Airport could accommodate a T-76 aircraft carrying “criminals who had hijacked it.”
After brief, high-level discussions in Israel, and exchanges of information with Moscow and other capitals, including Washington, permission was given for the plane to land. Israeli air force F-15 jets escorted it to the ariport.
Scores of ambulances and rescue service vehicles stood by as the Russian plane was taxied to a side runway. Armed soldiers and police were ready should weapons be brought into play.
Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin and the Israel Defense Force chief of staff, Gen. Dan Shomron, had already set up operational head quarters at the airport. Foreign Minister Peres also was directly involved and Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir was kept informed as developments unfolded.
The hijackers gave themselves up without incident and were locked up over night in the Tel Kabir jail in Tel Aviv.
Shamir, in his capacity as interior minister, and in consultation with the attorney general, decided to deport the criminals immediately for entering the country illegally.
Israel has no extradition treaty with the USSR.
By noon Saturday, an Aeroflot Tupulov TU-54 passenger aircraft arrived from the Soviet Union with a crew of technicians, police and medical personnel to pick up the criminals and assist the IL-76 and crew on their return flight.
The crew enjoyed an unexpected holiday, sunning themselves on the Tel Aviv beach.
RABIN REMARKS CRITICIZED
The one sour note in the entire affair concerned Rabin’s reportedly disparaging remarks over the way the Soviet authorities handled the affair. He was sharply criticized by other government officials, including members of his own Labor Party.
While waiting at the airport, Rabin remarked to reporters that “one can only express amazement” at the Soviets’ decision to allow the aircraft to leave their country.
“How can a superpower like the Soviet Union allow five simple robbers with four pistols and one hunting gun, when the children had already been freed, when not even one hostage was on the airplane, to leave the Soviet Union?” Rabin wondered aloud.
Similar criticism was expressed by the Israel Airlines Pilots Association. Other officials pointed out that the Soviets, unlike Israelis, have had little experience with this sort of situation.
The captain of the IL-76 said the incident could not be strictly classified as an “aricraft hijacking,” because the plane was provided by the Soviet civil aviation authorities and was authorized to leave.
In a footnote to the affair, ultra-Orthodox Cabinet Minister Yosef demanded Sunday that Rabin explain why he allowed “desecration of the Sabbath” in connection with activities around the hijacked plane.