The Israelis seem poised to play their part in a resolution of the TWA hostage crisis that they view more with relief than satisfaction. The Israelis were relieved that the drama appeared to be winding down Sunday evening -- without their having to explicitly meet the hijackers' demand for a release of 735 Lebanese prisoners.
Israel Radio quoted ``military sources'' Sunday as saying the prisoners, most of whom are Shiite Muslims, would in fact be freed ``gradually, beginning in several days.''
For purposes of public consumption, at least, such a release would be presented as independent of the hijack affair.
The Lebanese were arrested in southern Lebanon during Israel's three-year occupation of the area. Israeli officials had said before the June 14 hijacking that the prisoners would be freed as the ``situation'' in the area evacuated by the Israelis merited.
A prominent American Jewish leader who met with Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres Saturday commented on Sunday: ``There is no overt quid pro quo'' involving a release of Lebanese prisoners after the apparent freeing of the TWA hostages. But the official, Kenneth Bialkin of the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith, told reporters: ``There may be an implicit trade-off.''
Mr. Peres said Saturday that while he had made no deal with any of the actors in the crisis, the freeing of the 39 American hostages would remove a major obstacle in Israel's release of Lebanese prisoners.
In the longer run, Israeli officials are dismayed at what they see as possible public relations games by Syrian President Hafez Assad, who helped secure the release of the hostages from Shiite captivity in Beirut. As an Israeli newspaper editorial lamented Sunday: ``The Syrian President will be lauded and will be recognized as the only one capable of imposing his will on those who seek to undermine American interests in Lebanon.''
There seem to be mixed feelings in Israel on the role of Lebanese Shiite leader Nabih Berri, who negotiated on behalf of the hijackers. Israel is likely to draw encouragement from signs that when the chips were down, Mr. Berri -- at least in concert with Syria -- proved able to impose his will on more extreme Shiite forces in Lebanon.
Israeli Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin was quoted as saying recently: ``When all is said and done, we will have to arrive at Israeli-Shiite coexistence in south Lebanon.''
Despite contrary advice from some nongovernment experts here and what so far appears to be failure on the ground, however, the Israeli government still seems to prefer to seek a peacekeeping arrangement with Shiites within the Israeli-funded South Lebanon Army.
Veteran Mideast analysts, meanwhile, argue that the apparent exertion of authority by Syrian President Assad and Mr. Berri over more extreme Shiite forces seems a one-shot performance dictated more by internal Arab political consideration than by any softening in their states' reluctance to cooperate with Israeli aims in Lebanon.
The hijack arrangement appears to be the latest in a long string of Arab-Israeli agreements managed in such a way so that, publicly at least, there are no provable winners and losers.
One such accord, on issues of more general Arab-Israeli peace, was United Nations Security Council Resolution 242.
That agreement, approved at the tail end of the 1967 Mideast war, was worded with sufficient elasticity to allow contrary interpretations by each side. The resolution called on Israel to return occupied lands in exchange for peace.
What Resolution 242 did prove is that when circumstances make accord desirable on both sides of the Arab-Israeli divide, a formula for such an understanding can be found. This, in the view of Mideast analysts, seems the main immediate significance of the Lebanese-prisoner-for-TWA hostage exchange that, with no one prepared explicitly to say so, appeared to be unfolding Sunday.