WASHINGTON — From the very outset of the tedious negotiations that brought freedom Sunday to the 39 Americans hijacked to Beirut, the United States sought to keep Shia leader Nabih Berri engaged as the pivotal negotiator while destroying the strategy that had led him to assume his central role as the hostages' protector and captor.
According to a senior Administration official, Berri took responsibility for the negotiations in the belief that he could force the United States to bring direct pressure on Israel to release its Lebanese prisoners. In his quest for leadership in the arcane world of Lebanese politics, Berri thought he could turn that feat into quick political capital, this official said.
When the politically ambitious Berri concluded after about four days of private talks and public posturing that his approach could not break the impasse, he began looking to third parties for help. And that, according to the Administration official, is when movement toward resolution of the crisis began.
The White House moved early to increase the pressure. Within hours after Berri entered the picture, Robert C. McFarlane, Reagan's national security adviser, telephoned Berri and talked for half an hour. Apparently reflecting the content of that telephone conversation, White House spokesman Larry Speakes told reporters, "He (Berri) is the key to it; he has control over the situation."
Syria was an immediate possibility as a third party and was publicly mentioned as early as June 18, four days after TWA Flight 847 was violently commandeered over the Mediterranean by two radical Shia Muslim gunmen. By then there had already been high-level contacts between Washington and Damascus, but it was not until last Monday that Syria became a focus of diplomatic contacts in the continuing negotiations.
The first details of the negotiations began to come to light Sunday as the hostages flew from Syria to Frankfurt, West Germany aboard a U.S. Air Force C-141 Starfighter transport plane.
A chronology of the crisis released by the White House late Sunday showed that President Reagan was in personal charge of the crisis from the moment he cut short a weekend at Camp David two days after the hijacking to return to the White House.
A senior official, who discussed the events with reporters Sunday on condition that he not be identified, said that Reagan's first actions had been to sort out the conflicting interests of the various parties directly involved in the crisis and to seek judgments on what role third governments, including the Soviet Union, might play.
"Looking back," the official said, "it seems to us that Nabih Berri's interests were political, that he saw an opportunity here to elevate his own standing within the Shia community; if he were able to make a gain within the Shia community, that is the release of the prisoners in Israel."
The President also believed, the official said, that Israel's fundamental interest was to come out of the crisis with both its relations with the United States and its longstanding policy of not dealing with terrorists intact.
Publicly and privately, Washington stepped up its pressure on Berri by insisting publicly as well as privately that it would not ask Israel to release the Lebanese prisoners in return for the freedom of the American hostages.
Six days into the crisis, a frustrated Israeli Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin, calling the hostage impasse a U.S. problem, asked Washington to declare what it wished the Israeli government to do.
Two days earlier, the Administration official said Sunday, Berri began coming to the conclusion that the United States would not be pressured into asking Israel for the freedom of the Shia captives. He then began looking to a third party to get him out of his predicament.
Once an understanding developed for Syria to pass the hostages on to the United States, Berri and Syria faced lingering problems with the radical Hezbollah faction, members of which the Administration believed carried out the hijacking in the first place.
According to the Administration official who met with reporters Sunday, Hezbollah--which had held up the Saturday release by failing to turn over the four hostages it held separately--demanded a guarantee from the United States that there would be no retribution once the hostages were free.
"They focused upon the fact that there might be reprisals," the official said. "I honestly do not believe that that was a central demand because they really are not very vulnerable and they know darn well they are not vulnerable to reprisals."
Nevertheless, the State Department late Saturday cleared the final obstacle to the captives' release by issuing a statement, which the Administration characterized as nothing more than a reaffirmation of its support for the integrity of Lebanon.
The hostages, unaware of details of the negotiations, generally spoke warmly of Berri as they headed toward home, but in Washington, the Administration view of the Shia mediator was clearly more cynical.
"He has portrayed himself in various roles," said Secretary of State George P. Shultz. "He has portrayed himself as a party and a member of the group. So, I think we have to do some sorting out about Mr. Berri."