Jerusalem — A major development in the 11-day-old Beirut hostage drama came Sunday, when Israel announced it would free 31 Lebanese prisoners today. The 31 are part of a group of 766 Lebanese whom Israel has held since April. The release of all Lebanese prisoners held by Israel is the chief demand of the Shiite Muslims who hijacked a TWA jet on June 14. However, it was not clear what the next step would be or who would make it.
In Washington, the Reagan administration was careful not to connect release of the 31 prisoners, some of whom are Shiites, with the hijacking. President Reagan and Secretary of State George Shultz stressed that the planned prisoner release had nothing to do with the hostage crisis.
In Beirut, Shiite leader Nabih Berri dismissed the release, saying the hijackers demanded the release of all the Lebanese held in Israel. Another official of Mr. Berri's Amal militia repeated the hijackers' demand for a simultaneous release of the 40 Americans held in Beirut for the Lebanese held in Israel.
Israeli Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin and later Prime Minister Shimon Peres also insisted that the decision to release the detainees had no connection to the hijacking.
But the release, even of a few prisoners, will take some pressure off the Israelis and win some time for negotiations to continue behind the scenes.
Middle East experts in Washington speculate that this could set a pattern for resolution of the problem. Release of the 31 is cautiously seen as a good move.
``Berri is sensible enough to understand the problem of direct linkage,'' says Hermann Eilts, former US ambassador to Egypt. ``If that is the beginning of a process, [linkage] does not matter that much. The US will not get much credit for it. But it's a positive thing and an effective instrument -- if we don't overplay the nonlinkage aspect.''
Israel's decision came after a weekend of diplomatic activity and amid growing concern in Jerusalem that Israel's image was being damaged in the United States.
US diplomatic observers see the move as a result of growing pressure on Israel to address American public opinion. There is concern among American Jewish leaders, for instance, of a potential undercurrent of public discontent over Israel's perceived role in the crisis.
Israeli officials have said they are worried by a shift in American public opinion against Israel's determination not to bow to the hijackers' demands without an explicit American request to do so.
Last week, Mr. Rabin harshly criticized the Americans for not telling Israel what was expected of it. His remarks shocked Reagan administration officials and even some Israeli ministers. In recent days, the Israelis have taken pains to stress that their position is the same as that of the Americans in the crisis.
``We feel as deeply and as strongly about American hostages as we would feel about our own,'' Mr. Peres said on NBC's ``Meet the Press.'' ``We are really concerned about their safety, their well-being, their chances to come back home.''
On Friday, Peres telephoned Mr. Shultz. Their discussion of the hostage dilemma was the highest contact yet between the two administrations.
Both Peres and Defense Minister Rabin said that the decision to release the 31 Lebanese was taken a few weeks ago, after the prisoners had appealed to an Israeli court that had found there was, in the words of one Israeli official, ``no basis for the accusations against them.''
What remains to be seen is whether the 31 Lebanese released will be enough to win the release of all the US hostages.
In Switzerland Sunday, a Swiss Foreign Ministry official confirmed in a televison interview that the Swiss had acted as ``postmen'' among the Americans, Lebanese, and Israelis.
Berri had telephoned the Swiss foreign minister on Thursday, said Edouard Brunner, Swiss state secretary. The Swiss in turn contacted Israel and the US. Berri, also the Lebanese minister of justice, last week assumed the role of negotiator for the Shiite hijackers.
Berri reportedly told the Swiss that he ``agreed on principle [to release the hostages], but he requested the freeing of a certain number of Lebanese Shiite prisoners,'' by Israel first, Mr. Brunner said.
Peres expressed uncertainty about whether Berri was in control in Beirut.
``I'm not so sure who is running the show in Beirut. I'm not so sure if it's in one hand. And I'm not so sure if any of them really have a plan or a program of what to do,'' the prime minister said. He declined to predict how much longer he thought the crisis would continue.
Israeli officials have taken great care to emphasize throughout the drama that Israel has always considered the Lebanese prisoners it is holding to be temporary detainees, thus leaving an out should they eventually decide to release them all.
The prisoners were captured in south Lebanon and taken across the border to Israel's Atlit prison during the phased Israeli pullout from south Lebanon. Their transfer was condemned both by the International Red Cross and the US as a violation of the Geneva Convention.
Many of the prisoners are members of Amal, and their release has been repeatedly demanded by Amal. The Israelis already had released some of the prisoners, and had intended to release several hundred more before the hijacking occured.
Both the Reagan administration and Israel have said that the holding of the American hostages prevented the release of the Lebanese. But Berri has publicly maintained that there must be a simultaneous release of all the prisoners.
``Everybody now is just looking for a way to save face,'' says one military analyst.
Neither Israel nor the US wants to appear to be giving in to terrorists but Berri also has much to lose.
At stake for him is nothing less ``than control of the south,'' said the analyst. As the three-year Israeli occupation of the region has drawn to an end, Amal, the largest militia in Lebanon, has moved to exert its control over the war-ravaged area. Amal has been engaged in a power struggle with rival militias, many of them more radical, fundamentalist Shiite groups.
Analysts in Israel differ over whether the original TWA hijackers were members of Amal or the more radical Hizbullah (Party of God). But they agree that Berri, who is considered more moderate and secular, could not afford to remain uninvolved in an effort that is as popular as freeing Shiites from the Israelis.
Monitor correspondent Charlotte Saikowski contributed to this report from Washington.