Jewish leaders gauge US public reaction to hostage situation. Peres tries to show Israeli concern for captured Americans
Washington — One aspect of the hijacking crisis that worries the United States is the potential for a backlash of American public opinion against Israel. American-Jewish leaders say they see no major reverberation at the moment. But there is an undercurrent of concern as they sound out members of Congress and others about possible negative reaction. The concern springs from the fact that hijackers have linked the freeing of the hostages to Israel's release of hundreds of Shiite prisoners.
Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres's appearance on American television over the weekend, assuring the American people of Israeli concern about the fate of the American hostages, is seen as having helped patch up what seemed to be a gathering strain in US-Israeli relations.
Both Mr. Peres and the Reagan administration have adopted a firm public stance of not linking the issue of Israel's Shiite prisoners with the hostage situation.
``We don't underestimate the potential for a backlash,'' says Warren Eisenberg, a B'nai B'rith official, ``but there are other events going on that are positive. Both [the US and Israel] have publicly stated that they are on the same track. Peres went out of his way to assuage the relationship.''
``Certainly there has been a modest kind of public irritation and there is always a tendency in a moment of great stress to strike out and blame anyone but ourselves,'' says Phillip Klutznick, president emeritus of the World Jewish Congress.
``But that should not be blown up out of proportion. . . . Our government and the Israeli government are friendly governments. They're in closer communication now and we should leave it to the governments involved to work this out.''
The hope is expressed that Americans understand the weakness of Israel's coalition government. Prime Minister Peres cannot act without the support of others in his government, and members of the opposition Likud party are waiting to take advantage of any political misstep. Mr. Peres already is under strong criticism for releasing 1,150 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for three Israelis.
``The Israeli government should not be insensitive to American public opinion,'' says Alfred Moses, who was President Carter's liaison with the American-Jewish community. ``But it must look at the long-range implications. Otherwise it's reacting as a puppet.''
Another factor seen as affecting American opinion is the demands of the Shiite hijackers. Many observers believe the terrorists may have a hidden agenda beyond Israel's release of the Shiite prisoners. The hijackers could continue to hold the hostages and escalate their demands even if Israel releases the 735 Lebanese prisoners, mainly Shiites.
Nabih Berri, the Shiite militia leader who is holding most of the hostages, on Monday set a new condition for their release, saying that the US must pull its warships back from the eastern Mediterranean. The White House responded that the demand will not change US policy.
Although the US and Israel publicly reject any linkage between the hostage crisis and the Israel's release of the Shiites, privately Reagan administration officials have not concealed their frustration over Israel's early statement that it would free the prisoners if publicly asked to do so. ``There was a measure of exasperation with that position,'' says a senior administration official.
Some diplomatic observers say they detect a growing questioning among Americans about Israeli policy and the Peres government's seeming reluctance to accommodate the US at a time of anguish.
``There is a considerable body of public discontent with what is felt to be Israeli stalling on this,'' says a former US ambassador. ``But whether it will last or be temporary depends on whether the crisis goes on and what the outcome is.''
One Washington-based Middle East expert who appeared on a radio talk show in Oklahoma said some phone-in questioners criticized about Israel, suggesting it should simply turn the Shiite prisoners loose.
``Such grumbles come from hard-liners -- people who don't care about the US-Israeli relationship,'' he comments.
Members of the American-Jewish community also say that such criticism comes primarily from those who are not well disposed to Israel. Mr. Moses says people may blame Israel or Jews, but ``they're not sympathetic to Israel to begin with.''