Made No Deal, Israelis Insist : Deny Linking Americans’ Freedom to Shias’ Release
Top Israeli officials said Saturday that release of the American hostages from TWA Flight 847 would make it easier to free the 735 mostly Shia Muslim prisoners held in Israel. Still, they denied any direct link between the two and said that no decision has yet been made to speed up the release of the Lebanese detainees.
“There was no decision by the government to release the . . . Shiites until this moment,” a Cabinet source said Saturday. He and another senior government source said that any such decision will have to be approved by government ministers, who are expected to discuss the issue at their regular weekly Cabinet meeting this morning.
Both Syria and the United States announced that the American hostages were to be transferred to Damascus on Saturday and then flown on to Frankfurt, West Germany, where they would be freed. However, a last-minute hitch developed.
“Obviously, if the hostages will reach their homes, we won’t have the obstacles that we have had until now to proceed with our own way of releasing the prisoners,” Prime Minister Shimon Peres told television reporters who spent most of Saturday camped outside his Jerusalem home.
Referring to the announcements in both Washington and Damascus that the hostages were soon to be released, Peres added, “Israel didn’t have to make any deal; it didn’t make any deal.”
Peres spoke before it became apparent that the hostages’ release had been delayed, but government officials said later that there had been no pressure on Israel after the snag developed.
David Kimche, director general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, said in a telephone interview from his Tel Aviv home that “there has been a complete understanding between the United States and ourselves” on the hostage crisis. Included, he said, is the understanding “that if the hostages are freed, that will weigh as a factor on Israel’s decision regarding the release of the detainees.”
However, Kimche added, no more specific assurances were either requested or given.
Israel’s 735 Lebanese prisoners were among those arrested in southern Lebanon and transferred to Israel last April when Israeli troops evacuated the area around the Ansar detention camp where the Lebanese had been held. Israel said at the time that their detention was only temporary and that they would be released when the security situation in southern Lebanon permitted.
Of those prisoners it transferred across the border, Israel freed 604 before the TWA hijacking, and last week it released 31 more in hopes of helping to break the deadlock over the American hostages. But government sources said Saturday that the United States had asked that no more be freed until the American hostages were in safe hands.
The officials stressed that it was in the interests of both Washington and Jerusalem to downplay any linkage between release of the American hostages and a decision to speed up the release of the 735 remaining Arab prisoners, who are being held at the Atlit military detention center in northern Israel. To do otherwise would make it appear that one or both countries surrendered to terrorism, they said.
The officials were clearly concerned that if the agreement to free the hostages went through with the help of Syrian President Hafez Assad, Syria could enjoy greater influence in Washington, which in turn could complicate Israel’s diplomatic position in the Middle East.
One official complained that Assad may wind up a hero in the United States, even though Israel contends that Syria at least abetted the original hijacking and that it could have ended the crisis days ago if it had wanted to.
Despite that reservation, there was an optimistic feeling here Saturday--if not of victory, at least of relief that Israel stood to emerge from the drama relatively well off.
“They (the hostages) will be released and sent to Frankfurt without any government assurance from Israel,” a Cabinet source told The Times early Saturday.
When a reporter commented that the arrangement seemed like a much better deal than appeared possible only a few days ago, the source responded, “Right!”
Details of contacts between Israel and the United States over the TWA hijacking were still shrouded in official secrecy here Saturday, but officials indicated that a key development laying the groundwork for an agreement with Syria was a telephone call last Wednesday from Peres to U.S. Secretary of State George P. Shultz.
The call came after a meeting of Israel’s “inner Cabinet” of the 10 most senior ministers. During the call, Peres reportedly told Shultz that Israel stood ready to help resolve the crisis in any way it could.
It is unclear what mandate Peres had from the inner Cabinet, but sources here insist that they made no specific decision on a hostage release.
“The decision was just to say what Peres said,” said a Cabinet source. “There was no insurance policy from our side.” In any event, Israeli officials said, the prime minister’s assurances were apparently considered sufficient for Washington in its dealings with Assad.
Israeli military sources in the north said they have received no instructions regarding preparations to receive the Atlit detainees, most of them Shia Muslims from southern Lebanon.
According to a U.N. source, Israel has been told that the United Nations could be ready to help with the transfer of the prisoners back to their homes within an hour of being notified.