The Israeli prime minister has had one overriding aim in the TWA hijacking crisis: to make sure Israel does not appear to be giving in to the demands of terrorists. Shimon Peres faced the dilemma of what to do if the United States did not make a formal request for Israel to release the Shiite Muslim Lebanese prisoners it holds. Such a request would take his government off the hook. Military analysts and political observers agreed that if the request were made, Israel would be hard put to turn it down.
But the US continued to insist Monday that it too would not give in to terrorist demands, and that any decision to release the Shiites was up to Israel.
Nevertheless, there were indications Monday that Israel would release the Shiite prisoners in exchange for the American hostages being held by Shiite Muslim extremists in Beirut. The plane was hijacked last Friday.
Breaking the official silence in force here since Sunday, Cabinet Minister Haim Bar-Lev said Monday evening that Israel did not need to take any initiative to release its Shiite prisoners. The police minister said, however, that if a formal request were made by the US, it would have to be taken seriously. His statement repeated what had been said earlier by Defense Ministry sources.
Shiite leader Nabih Berri said Monday that about 30 passengers remaining aboard TWA Flight 847 had been taken off the plane and were being held jointly by the Shiite hijackers and the Amal militia Mr. Berri heads. Berri said that he had ordered the passengers taken off the airplane as a precaution against a possible commando-style rescue attempt.
Berri, who has good contacts with American officials, is considered to be more moderate than many of his followers. One of the many complications to the hijacking is the power struggle going on between Berri and the more extremist, pro-Iranian Shiite factions such as the one that seized the TWA jet.
Analysts here say they believe Berri aims to better the lot of Lebanon's Shiites, who make up the majority of the population but have traditionally been locked out of the political framework. More radical groups such as Islamic Jihad (``Islamic Holy War'') and Hizbullah (``Party of God''), however, are believed to have closer ties to Iran and to be interested in creating an Islamic state in Lebanon.
The Shiites who seized the jet appeared to be linked to the more radical, pro-Iranian factions, although Islamic Jihad denied responsibility for the attack.
Berri seemed to gain the upper hand in the hostage crisis Sunday when he agreed to handle negotiations for the hostages' release. He passed on the hijackers' demands to the French, British, and Spanish ambassadors to Lebanon, as well as to Red Cross and United Nations officials.
Berri spoke with Robert McFarlane, President Ronald Reagan's national security adviser, by telephone Monday.
Defense Ministry sources stressed that Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin was in close contact with US Embassy officials in Tel Aviv. The government-run Voice of Israel broadcast several times the government's position that the Cabinet would reconsider its stance on not releasing prisoners if asked to by the US.
Israel's reluctance to appear to have given in to terrorist demands was complicated by the fact that Israel had earlier announced its intention to release the Shiites it holds anyway, as the security situation in south Lebanon stabilized.
The issue of releasing the Shiites is emotionally charged here because of the recent, controversial release of 1,150 prisoners -- many of whom were convicted terrorists -- in exchange for three Israeli prisoners of war held by a Palestinian splinter group led by Ahmed Jibril.
The government had agreed in that exchange to allow some 600 of the freed prisoners to remain in Israel and on the West Bank, provoking a public outcry and warnings from anti-terrorist experts that Israel would suffer for breaking its ``no deal'' policy with terrorists.
In Israel, an estimated 30,000 people turned out Sunday night for an anti-terrorist demonstration in Tel Aviv organized by the Gush Emunim, a right-wing nationalist movement at the vanguard of the drive for Jewish settlement of the West Bank. The demonstrators demanded the death penalty for Arab terrorists and urged the government not to release the Shiites.
On Monday, several rightist members of the Israeli parliament put forth motions urging the government to stand fast and refuse to release the Shiites.
A former head of Mossad, the Israeli intelligence service, said in an interview on the Voice of Israel that releasing the Shiites would be a mistake and would lead to further demands being made on Israel by extremists.
The 766 Shiites are being held in Atlit camp in northern Israel. Unlike the Palestinians freed last month, they have never been tried or convicted in Israeli courts of terrorist acts. They are a fraction of the Shiites arrested by Israel during its three-year occupation of south Lebanon. Their offenses range from guerrilla activities to being suspected of housing suspected guerrillas.