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Syrian ‘Hostage Savior’ Role Would Gall Israel : Jerusalem Already Worried About Incident’s Damage to Its Image in U.S.

Times Staff Writer

Already concerned about damage to Israel’s image in the United States from the TWA hostage crisis, Israeli policymakers appeared to be steeling themselves Friday for the possibility that Syria, this country’s most implacable enemy, could score a major public relations coup by brokering an end to the affair.

Officials here spoke of what they called “fruitless efforts” during the past two days to have the American hostages transferred to the care of a West European government.

The idea that Syria, which Israeli officials have openly accused of complicity in the hijacking, might wind up appearing as the hostages’ savior, is deeply galling here. An army spokesman, while acknowledging that “we have no hard information” to show a Syrian hand in the hijacking, said that “this is an assumption based on circumstances surrounding the incident and our familiarity with the connections between various organizations in Lebanon, including Shia organizations, and Syria.”

But, as one senior defense source asked, “What can Israel do?” if Syria plays a prominent role in freeing the captive Americans.

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Offer on 3rd Party

Nabih Berri, the Lebanese Shia leader and government minister negotiating on behalf of the hijackers, has said the hostages will not be freed until Israel releases 735 Lebanese prisoners, most of them Shia Muslims, whom it holds in a military detention center in northern Israel. But he has offered to transfer the American captives into third-party hands, pending the return of the Lebanese.

According to Beirut reports circulating here Friday, Syria had agreed in principle to accept the hostages if an arrangement for release of the 735 Lebanese prisoners can be made within 48 hours. The Lebanese were taken across the border to Israel in April in a move that the United States, the International Red Cross and others have called a violation of the Geneva Conventions.

Israel has said it will free the Lebanese as the security situation in southern Lebanon permits. After the hijacking, Israel said it would reconsider that timetable, but only if the United States requests such an action publicly and at a high level.

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That position, seen as uncooperative by some in the United States, is apparently causing a deterioration in Israel’s standing in public opinion polls.

Request Issue Muted

Israel has never officially changed its position, and this country and the United States both publicly reject any linkage between the release of the TWA hostages and freedom for Israel’s Lebanese prisoners. However, officials here no longer refer to the need for a high-level U.S. request to speed up the prisoner release, and they seem eager to coordinate fully with the Reagan Administration.

“We are not going to be an impediment to any agreement that is acceptable to the United States,” Simcha Dinitz, a member of the Israeli Parliament and former ambassador to Washington, said in a telephone interview Friday.

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Dinitz, who has just returned from a trip to the United States, said that during his visit he found “a split in public opinion regarding freeing the Shias. That is an issue.”

Also, he said, he found “some notion--disturbing--that maybe the United States has been too close to Israel.” However, he said, “I really don’t read too much into these polls. . . . I don’t think that’s a fundamental shift in public opinion.”

Lasting Damage Seen

Others disagree. “My own theory is that this does cause permanent damage,” said the representative in Israel of an influential American Jewish group. This source, who requested anonymity, said that while he agrees that Israel’s image is likely to rebound after the hostage crisis is over, such incidents have a cumulative negative effect. Thus, he said, the American public’s reaction now is stronger because of earlier opposition to the Lebanon war.

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Whether they see it as a short- or long-range problem, Israeli officials undoubtedly are worried.

Senior aides to Prime Minister Shimon Peres, including his personal media adviser and his principal adviser on Israeli-American relations, have consulted with representatives of American Jewish groups on possible strategies to counter the trend, according to one source who has participated in such meetings.

“Regarding basic policy, nothing can be done more than is being done,” said one government source close to the prime minister. “But maybe something should be done in terms of public relations or image-building.”

U.S. Poll Mentioned

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The issue here of Israel’s image in the United States gained further prominence earlier this week when a Washington Post-ABC News poll showed, in the wake of the TWA hijacking, growing American support for loosening U.S. ties with Israel.

The results of the poll were widely circulated here, and on Thursday night, Peres referred to it in a speech before the world assembly of the Jewish Agency.

“I read in the papers that some American people feel that maybe as a result of the hijacking of the plane the United States should weaken its relations with Israel,” Peres said. “The only meaning of this conclusion is a surrender by proxy to the threat of terror.”

Sounding a theme that has been more frequent in his remarks during the last few days, Peres stressed that “we feel deeply” for the American hostages. “We feel about them in the same way, in the same depth as we would feel for our own people. And we shall participate in doing whatever can be done in the double undertaking not to surrender to terror, and then to bring back the innocent people who were hijacked to their homes, to their families, in a safe and quick way.”

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Ali Meets Official

On Friday, Ronnie Milo, deputy Israeli foreign minister, met for 40 minutes with former world heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali, who said he had come to seek the release of the 735 Lebanese prisoners.

Asked why Ali got an official hearing, a Foreign Ministry source commented, “The considerations must have been that not accepting him would have been even worse.”


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