Secretary of State George P. Shultz, standing firm on the Reagan Administration's refusal to seek a deal with the Shia Muslim terrorists holding 40 Americans hostage in Beirut, told Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres on Friday that he will not ask Israel to meet the militants' demands.
Peres telephoned Shultz to discuss the weeklong hostage crisis and "to express his and Israel's full support and admiration for the position that the United States has taken," State Department spokesman Bernard Kalb said.
Shultz told the Israeli leader that "our position remains firm--that we will make no deals or concessions with terrorists and we will not ask others to do so," Kalb said.
The terrorists, backed by Shia Muslim militia leader Nabih Berri, have demanded that Israel release about 760 Lebanese prisoners it holds in exchange for the 40 Americans, who include three crew members of the plane that was hijacked June 14.
Israeli officials complained of U.S. pressure when State Department officials said they hoped that the Jerusalem government would quickly free the prisoners--despite statements by President Reagan and other officials that they would ask for no concessions.
Israel, for its part, says it will continue with a plan to free the prisoners on its own schedule without regard to the hostage crisis. But it has indicated that it would consider a public U.S. request to free them.
The U.S. position appears to have hardened slightly, at least partly in response to the Israeli complaints. A State Department official said Shultz tried to reassure Peres that the Administration has no intention of putting pressure on Israel to free the Arab detainees--although it still believes such an action could be the key to winning the American hostages' release.
A week after the hijacking of TWA Flight 847, and five days after its remaining male American passengers were hustled into the Shia slums of Beirut, the hostage crisis has turned into a standoff among three leaders with apparently unreconcilable positions: Ronald Reagan, Shimon Peres and Nabih Berri.
A weary member of the State Department's working group on the crisis, settling in Friday evening for another long night of monitoring signals from Beirut, said: "Nobody around here sees anything about to move."
Reagan, Peres and Berri each have their own strong reasons for not giving in.
The Administration is sticking to its seemingly paradoxical position, rejecting any concessions to the terrorists but hoping nevertheless that Israel will release its Arab detainees.
Reagan, Shultz and other officials have long argued for a tough line against terrorists, calling for both preemptive and retaliatory military strikes against them and rejecting any concessions that they think could only encourage future attacks.
They did not depart from that line this week. "America will never make concessions to terrorists," Reagan said in his news conference Tuesday. "To do so would only invite more terrorism. Nor will we ask nor pressure any other government to do so. Once we head down that path, there'll be no end to it."
But the Administration was already in the position of having urged Israel to return its Arab prisoners to Lebanon--something Israel had already said it planned to do, but on its own schedule and not in response to the hostage crisis.
So the State Department came up with a position that walked an excruciatingly fine line between the two concerns. The United States was not asking Israel to free the mostly Shia detainees, a senior State Department official said carefully, adding:
"But we have made our position clear that those people should be returned to Lebanon. Now, Israel has withdrawn from Lebanon, so if these people are sent back, they are not sent back to detention; they're sent back to their homes. Is that clear?"
Pieces of a Deal
In Washington, what was clear was that the Administration was trying to suggest the pieces of a deal that would free both the American hostages and the Arab detainees without explicitly linking the two.
But to Israeli leaders, what seemed clearer was that the Administration wanted them to release the detainees quicker than they had planned.
"You (Americans) say, 'We are not going to give in to the demands of terrorism. We are not going to give in to any blackmail. But we want you to do so without even asking you to do so,' " Israeli Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin complained.
Rabin and other Israelis said that they moved the detainees into Israel from southern Lebanon to ensure the safety of their troops and the local militia they sponsor, the South Lebanon Army. When southern Lebanon's security is assured, they said, the detainees will be released.
Peres said the Beirut hostage crisis has actually made releasing the prisoners more difficult.
"Up to now, the matter of freeing the detainees was only a subject that was covered by security considerations in south Lebanon," he said in an interview with Israel's state radio network. "Now there is an additional problem: not to give the impression of a general surrender to hijackers."
Berri also has a "domestic" problem: He is only one of several contenders for leadership in Lebanon's Shia community. Berri, considered one of the most moderate Shia leaders, "took over" most of the hostages earlier this week in the apparent hope that he could arrange a prisoner swap reasonably quickly and win a clear victory on behalf of his more militant followers.
Some officials, and many non-governmental experts, believe that he cannot afford to give up the hostages except in an explicit deal for the freedom of the detainees.
"Any Shia leader has to try to remain on top of his troops," the senior State Department official said. "They got out ahead of him on this one (the hijacking). He's trying to assert control, but it remains a big question."
An irony of the situation, officials said, is that the Administration genuinely favored the release of the Lebanese detainees--but never pressed for it and now believes that it cannot.
"We never did very much to get them loose in the first place," one official said. "One of the reasons we have Americans held hostage is that we were reluctant to articulate a policy in which we believed."