WASHINGTON — When Shiite Muslim terrorists hijacked a TWA jet and took 39 Americans hostage in Beirut four years ago, then-President Ronald Reagan's public stance was clear: There would be no negotiations with terrorists.
But in private, the U.S. position was quite different. Reagan quietly encouraged Israel to make a deal with the terrorists, to exchange Israeli-held detainees for American hostages--and that is how the TWA captives were released, as the first step in a massive swap of prisoners across Israel's northern border.
On Tuesday, history seemed to be repeating itself. Bush Administration spokesmen said that the United States would make no deals with the terrorists who hold eight Americans in Lebanon--but they refused to object to Israel's proposal to swap its prisoners for the Lebanese militants' captives. And other officials said that the Administration holds out some hope that the Israeli idea might work.
"Our policy has been very clear, that we do not negotiate for the release of hostages," White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said. ". . . But Israel is a sovereign nation. They have a different policy with regard to hostages than we have."
Despite the U.S. insistence that dealing with terrorists is out of the question, Israel has long made negotiations an explicit part of its approach to freeing hostages. And from the 1985 TWA hijacking through the Iran-Contra scandal to the Bush Administration's current crisis, the United States has been willing more than once to give Israel's approach a try.
"Israel's policy on these things is a sort of a strange mix," said Martin Indyk, director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "They are often willing to use force, and generally they say they won't negotiate with terrorists. But when it comes to actually trying to get back their own citizens, they have a history of making trades."
Indeed, the current crisis over the reported hanging of U.S. Marine Lt. Col. William R. Higgins stems at least partly from Israel's interest in making such a trade. Lebanese terrorists announced Higgins' murder in response to Israel's kidnaping of a militant Shiite clergyman, Sheik Abdel Karim Obeid; Israeli officials say they seized Obeid in hopes of trading him for three Israeli soldiers held captive in Lebanon.
On Tuesday, Israel renewed its offer to return Obeid and scores of other Lebanese prisoners in exchange for all foreign captives in Lebanon.
"This is the reason we have taken this military action," said David Peleg, a spokesman for the Israeli Embassy in Washington. "There is nothing we want more than to see all of the hostages and prisoners return home in safety."
Israel has exchanged prisoners of war with its Arab neighbors after all four Middle East wars, a common practice among all regular armies. But in the 1970s and 1980s, as the Arab-Israeli conflict focused on guerrilla fighting and terrorism, Israeli governments extended the practice to include negotiations with groups that they otherwise have excoriated as criminals. In 1983, for example, Israel released about 4,500 Palestine Liberation Organization guerrillas captured during its 1982 invasion of Lebanon in exchange for only six Israelis.
"Their policy for many, many years has been to do whatever has to be done to get soldiers back from captivity," Samuel W. Lewis, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel, explained. "It has been a very important mutual understanding between soldiers and the army high command. . . . If rescue is impossible, then they will negotiate and do whatever they have to do to get them back.
"The policy is understood by U.S. officials," he added. "Israel is at war. We're not."
In 1985, during the TWA hijacking, the Reagan Administration sought to combine its public policy of "no negotiations" with Israel's willingness to release Arab prisoners. The immediate outcome was annoyance in Israel, where Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin accused the United States of "playing games."
Eventually, the gambit did lead to the release of the American hostages--but it inflicted considerable damage on the credibility of the U.S. position.
Indeed, some officials believe that the 1985 drama led directly to the Iran-Contra scandal, in which Reagan approved secret arms sales to Iran in hope of winning the release of the remaining hostages. That deal, too, was begun partly at Jerusalem's instigation: Top Israeli officials encouraged the Reagan Administration to seek an opening to Iran in the belief that it could result in the hostages' release.
Now, Israeli officials are saying once again that they believe they have a common goal with the United States, even if the tactics appear different.
"We sometimes take different courses of action," Peleg said. "But we both share the hope of returning all the hostages to their families."