Reagan administration officials took an increasingly pessimistic view late yesterday of prospects for quick release of the 43 persons from TWA Flight 847 being held hostage in Beirut.
While White House officials publicly pinned their hopes for resolution of the Mideast hijacking crisis on Shiite Moslem leader Nabih Berri, they privately expressed growing concern that he may lack authority to obtain release of the 42 Americans and one Greek national in their fourth day of captivity.
"I don't see any immediate resolution of the situation," an administration official said after a day in which the mood shifted from mild early-morning optimism to a view that attempts to free the hostages may take a long time.
While hoping that Berri, leader of the mainstream Shiite Moslem movement known as Amal, could use his influence to win release of the hostages, the administration also was involved in a difficult balancing act with Israel, which holds 700 to 800 Shiite prisoners whom the hijackers have demanded be released.
White House spokesman Larry Speakes said this demand amounts to "impossible preconditions" and insisted that the U.S. government would not ask Israel to release the prisoners. He also noted that Israel had before the hijacking given conditional indications of plans to free several hundred of the prisoners.
A diplomatic source said it is "possible" that the hijackers would accept a private pledge from either the United States or Israel to free the Shiite prisoners several days after the Americans were released.
Administration officials would not comment on any such initiative and expressed irritation with an Israeli Cabinet declaration that Israel would free the prisoners if the United States publicly requests their release. President Reagan said Sunday that he will not do this.
Speaking of the Israeli statement, a U.S. official said, "What good does that do? They know we're not going to make such a request."
White House and State Department officials reiterated this position frequently yesterday.
"We do not make concessions to terrorists," a senior State Department official said. "We do not ask other governments to do so, whether Israel, Kuwait or whomever they may be."
U.S. officials expressed uncertainty about the hostages' whereabouts. They said 10 taken off the plane Saturday in Beirut because they supposedly had "Jewish surnames" may not be as fully protected by Berri as the 30 passengers believed to have been taken off the plane there Sunday night.
Administration officials believe that the three-man crew is on the plane with some of the hijackers.
Speakes said national security affairs adviser Robert C. McFarlane spoke to Berri by telephone yesterday morning and said later that "Berri holds in his hands the ability to end this situation."
McFarlane and Berri have had a working relationship since 1983, when McFarlane served briefly as Reagan's special envoy trying to mediate the Lebanese civil war.
"It appears that, in our opinion, the Shiite leaders, including Berri, hold the ability to solve the problem . . . , " Speakes said. "They have the responsibility in this case."
The Shiites, largest of Lebanon's warring factions, are concentrated in southern Lebanon where they have engaged in guerrilla warfare against Israeli occupying forces. The Israelis moved Shiite prisoners temporarily to Israel as a preventive measure while completing their withdrawal from Lebanon during recent weeks but have said they would be released when the evacuation was completed.
Speakes said yesterday that the hijackers can delay this release because Israel has traditionally followed a strict policy of not making concessions to terrorists.
Administration and diplomatic sources referred yesterday to Berri, Lebanon's justice minister, as a "responsible" leader and said that, by releasing the hostages, he can enhance his international stature and prestige among Lebanese Shiites, many of whom are heavily influenced by Iranian-backed extremists.
These officials also questioned whether Berri can make good in faction-ridden Lebanon on his promise to protect the hostages.
Reagan, highly visible on the hostage issue Sunday, yesterday adopted a business-as-usual posture as the administration settled in for what many officials believe will be a protracted crisis.
Reagan's only words on the subject came in response to shouted questions of television reporters yesterday after a Rose Garden ceremony where he announced a new Commission on Defense Management.
"We're doing everything we can," the president said, echoing a line supplied to him by Nancy Reagan on Aug. 1, 1984, at his California ranch when Reagan was asked what he was doing to get a meeting with the Soviets on arms control.
Speakes said the president "certainly has deep concern for those that are being held. He hopes and prays for the early release, the safe release, of the hostages . . . . At the same time, there are a lot of other items on the agenda here that he's concentrating on, also."
The White House spokesman said the president spent "5 to 8 percent" of his time on the hijacking crisis at a luncheon meeting with his advisers where other subjects included the defense commission, chemical-warfare issues, textile imports and tonight's scheduled news conference.
Speakes said Reagan intends to follow his planned schedule this week, which includes speeches in Indianapolis and Dallas.
McFarlane has regularly briefed Reagan on the hostage crisis. Speakes said Reagan yesterday called C.E. Meyer Jr., president and chief executive officer of TWA, and expressed "deep admiration for the performance and courage of the crew."
A State Department spokesman read a statement by Secretary George P. Shultz saying that "hijacking and other forms of terrorism are unacceptable in any civilized society" and calling on "those holding hostages to treat them properly and to release them immediately."
Congressional reaction was scant but generally favorable to the administration. House Majority Leader James C. Wright Jr. (D-Tex.) backed Reagan's handling of the hijacking.
"I'm not going to quarrel with the administration's handling of that," Wright said. "It's easy to talk big and bluster but, when the lives of American hostages are at stake, it's a very delicate matter."
At the daily White House briefing, a reporter mentioned that Reagan had vowed during the 1980 campaign that terrorists would never be allowed to strike at the United States without swift retribution. Had the president's views changed? the reporter asked.
"No, they have not changed," Speakes replied. "The world is changing."