Hostages Spirited Off Jet, Berri Says : U.S. Outlines a Subtle Deal to End Crisis
The United States unveiled a subtle “no-deal” deal Monday that it hopes will lead to the release of more than 40 American hostages who were on the hijacked TWA airliner and about 700 Shia Muslim prisoners from an Israeli jail.
White House national security adviser Robert C. McFarlane telephoned Lebanese Shia leader Nabih Berri to outline a solution for the four-day-old crisis that would give all sides what they want--but that apparently would work only if all parties are left free to describe it any way they see fit, and even to deny that any compromise exists.
Berri, leader of the Shia militia Amal and minister of justice in the weak and ineffective Lebanese government, is the key to the current U.S. strategy. The American effort has no chance of success unless Berri’s control of the Shia community is strong enough to permit him to require the hijackers to release the hostages when he decides the time is right.
Want Shia Prisoners Freed
The Shia hijackers have demanded that Israel release Lebanese Shia prisoners now held in an Israeli jail near Haifa in exchange for the remaining passengers from TWA Flight 847.
Both the United States and Israel refuse to make concessions to terrorists, but White House spokesman Larry Speakes said McFarlane told Berri that Israel had been preparing to release the prisoners before Shia hijackers commandeered the TWA plane Friday. He said the hijacking delayed the release because the Israelis refuse to free the prisoners under duress.
Therefore, McFarlane told Berri, if the hijackers release the hostages unconditionally and end the current crisis, Israel can be expected to go ahead with its plans to free the prisoners, who were arrested for resistance to the three-year Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon.
“The Israelis have made public statements that they plan to release these prisoners,” Speakes said. “And it is the hijacking situation . . . that is holding this up. So, if the hostage situation was cleared up, it might be possible that the Israelis would proceed on the schedule they had previously announced.”
Zbigniew Brzezinski, who was President Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser, endorsed the Reagan Administration’s strategy. Leaving the White House on Monday after meeting with Reagan on the work of a chemical warfare commission, Brzezinski said: “Negotiations can take place indirectly, and that is what is in progress now. It’s just a question of formal wording.”
Simple but Also Fragile
Put that way, the plan seems simple--but it also is very fragile. For reasons of general foreign policy, the United States and Israel cannot admit that they would give in to the demands of terrorists. And Berri must show his followers that he forced the United States and Israel to back down, so a passive deal may not be enough for him.
Speakes described the hijackers’ demand for the release of the 700 prisoners as an “impossible pre-condition.” He added: “We don’t make concessions and we don’t encourage others to make concessions. We would not ask them to do what we wouldn’t do.”
Israel has a longtime policy of refusing to negotiate with terrorists. However, Israeli officials indicated Sunday that they might release the prisoners if publicly requested to do so by the United States, something Speakes made clear Washington is unwilling to do.
For his part, Berri told reporters at a Beirut news conference that the hostages will not be released until after the Shia prisoners are freed, reversing the order called for in the U.S. plan.
Prof. Louis Cantori, chairman of the political science department at the University of Maryland’s Baltimore campus and a leading U.S. expert on Shia Muslim politics, said Berri must be seen by his own followers as having publicly humiliated the United States and Israel.
“Any lesser acknowledgement out of Tel Aviv or Washington may not be acceptable,” Cantori said in an interview.
Said a senior State Department official: “Let me remind you, the Shia community has suffered enormously over many years of violence and conflict and deprivation. The United States government has always supported political reconciliation and reform among the Lebanese communities which would provide all of them with equitable political distribution.
“So Nabih Berri, as a responsible leader of the Shia community, has our appreciation. Nabih Berri, as someone who has accepted responsibility for the well-being of the prisoners, has done something we consider to be positive.”
The official, who declined to be identified by name, also reminded reporters that the United States had criticized Israel’s decision earlier this year to transfer the 700 Shia prisoners from the Ansar detention camp in Lebanon to a prison in Israel.
Contact With Berri
So far, all U.S. attempts to contact the hijackers have been through Berri. Speakes said that McFarlane originated the telephone call to Berri. In addition, the State Department said that Reginald Bartholomew, U.S. ambassador to Lebanon, has been in contact with Berri.
Presumably, Bartholomew talked to Berri by telephone because the ambassador’s official residence is in a suburb of East Beirut, which is predominantly Christian, while Berri’s headquarters is in the Muslim western half of the city. Travel between the two parts of the city is hazardous.
Despite the crisis atmosphere, President Reagan stuck by his normal schedule Monday.
Reagan, in response to shouted questions during a ceremony in the Rose Garden, said: “We’re doing everything that can be done. I’ll have no further comments. We’re doing everything we can.”
Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia, ranking Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, leaving the White House, said Reagan did not seem distracted. “He’s carrying on his duties, and I think that’s appropriate,” Nunn said.