Israel's defense minister sharply scolded the Reagan administration Thursday, saying it was shirking its responsibility to the American hostages in Beirut. Yitzhak Rabin said publicly what many Israeli officials have been saying privately -- that the United States is asking Israel to pay the political price of freeing the hostages, held by Shiite Muslims.
[Five of the hostages were brought by Shiite Amal militiamen to a news conference at Beirut airport Thursday, according to the Associated Press. See back page for details.]
``Rabin believes the administration is pushing public opinion against Israel,'' a military analyst says. ``There has been almost no contact from the American side with Israel, and what has been made is on a very low level. So he feels that the [Reagan] administration is trying to play with Israel.''
One Foreign Ministry official described Rabin as ``furious'' with the US for refusing to ask Israel to free the 766 Shiites it holds.
The hijackers of TWA Flight 847 have made the release of the Shiites their chief demand. The Israelis feel they cannot absorb the blow to their prestige that a release of the Shiites would entail.
In Beirut, Nabih Berri, who is negotiating on behalf of the hijackers increased the pressure on Israel and the US. Mr. Berri, the leader of the Shiite Amal militia and Lebanon's minister of justice, told reporters that Switzerland had offered to let a prisoner exchange take place in one of that country's airports.
``We have accepted this offer . . . if the others [Israel and the US] accept this,'' Berri said.
In Israel, there is growing concern in government circles that considerable damage is being done to Israel's image in the US as the hostage crisis continues.
President Reagan and other high-ranking officials in his administration have said publicly on several occasions that they will make no deal with the gunmen. But reports continue that administration officials privately have said they would like Israel to release the Shiite prisoners. (Western observers say the Israeli belief that Washington is trying indirectly to apply pressure is unfounded.)
The US points out that Israel plans to release the Shiites anyway, and that the legality of their transfer to Israeli territory in April is dubious. None of the prisoners has been tried in Israeli courts.
``I would say that right now, public opinion polls in the United States are running about 50-50,'' on the question of whether Israel should release the Shiites it holds, an official of the Anti-Defamation League in Jerusalem said. ``But sentiment is rising against Israel's position.''
The Israeli government agrees that it always intended to return the Shiites to south Lebanon. More than 1,000 of them -- most of whom were held in the Ansar prison camp -- were taken across the border when the Israelis were withdrawing from south Lebanon in April.
The move was condemned by both the International Red Cross and the US as a violation of the 1949 Geneva Convention. Some of the Shiites were released in May. Israel was planning to release more shortly before the hijacking occurred. In a live interview with ABC television's Nightline, Rabin took the Americans to task for not directly asking that Israel free the Shiites it is holding.
``Let's not play games,'' the defense minister said. ``If there is a desire, if there is a request on the part of the United States that this has to be done in relation, or as part of a deal for the release of the hostages, please, come out and say it.''
Rabin added that ``the problem is an American problem. The hostages are Americans. They were caught onboard an airline which carries the United States flag. The United States government has to make up its mind: what do they want to do? It's first and foremost their decision.
``I've never tried to avoid responsibility. I've never shrugged off my shoulders the need to make a decision as a prime minister and now as a defense minister, facing terror acts against Israelis. I expect the United States to do the same.''
Rabin's strong comments were generally supported by other officials Thursday. Some, however, expressed concern that the defense minister's harsh tone would further alienate US public opinion and anger the administration.
The military analyst close to Rabin says that the defense minister is more determined than ever that Israel not be seen to be giving in to the hijackers. From Beirut:
At Thursday's press conference, hostage Allyn Conwell started to read a statement but did not finish. According to a CBS radio tape of the conference, there was scuffling involving militias and reporters. Then the news conference ended.
``The purpose of our agreeing to talk with you tonight is primarily involved with assuring our families and fellow countrymen and our loved ones and friends that we are all in good health, that we are being cared for,'' Mr. Conwell said.