Prime Minister Shimon Peres said today that Israel has "been approached" by the United States about a possible meeting with representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross and that Israel agreed to see those representatives in connection with the demands of the TWA hijackers.
Although a possible meeting with the Red Cross would mark a new development in the hijack drama, Peres' office, apparently seeking to avoid any public signal of a shift in policy, later issued a statement saying that while Israel would meet with Red Cross representatives "out of courtesy," it "has no intention whatsoever to negotiate over" the hijacking.
Israeli officials said tonight that so far there had been no contacts from the Red Cross.
The hijackers are demanding the release of more than 700 Lebanese Shiite Moslem prisoners held by Israel in exchange for the American hostages. The Israeli government has pledged to consider a direct U.S. request to free the Shiite prisoners, but has said it will not negotiate over their release.
At the same time, senior government officials here have sought to distance themselves from the incident by emphasizing that the decision on whether to bow to the hijackers' demands rests solely with the Reagan administration. They have made it clear that Israel would have no choice but to comply with a direct request to free the Shiite prisoners from the "senior level" of the U.S. government, but it will not act on its own.
Peres discussed a possible Red Cross role in ending the hijacking ordeal while answering questions from high school students.
"As of now, the Americans have approached us and told us it is possible the Red Cross will approach us," he said. "If the Red Cross approaches us, we will receive them and hear what they have to say. No request has been made by the American government for Israel to do anything or declare anything.
"Israel has said from the outset it is prepared to help with whatever it can."
In Geneva, the International Committee of the Red Cross said it is willing to organize an exchange of prisoners but will not mediate negotiations, United Press International reported.
"We are available for the operational stage of any exchange as we have been in the past but not for mediation in negotiations on a political issue," a spokeswoman said. "We see no need at this time for an intermediary," she said.
The Red Cross has played an important role in the previous prisoner exchanges Israel has conducted, and the international organization almost certainly could be a key intermediary in any arrangement involving the release of the Shiite prisoners and the airline hostages.
Israeli officials, who are under considerable domestic criticism because of a controversial prisoner exchange last month, do not want to be seen as negotiating with the Red Cross over a matter that they have portrayed as an American problem.
"We won't deal with the Red Cross on this," an Israeli official said. "They are not a party to it. We deal with the U.S."
Most of the Shiite prisoners held here were rounded up in Israeli Army raids of villages in southern Lebanon before the Israeli withdrawal that was completed this month. Israel has said it plans to release them eventually with the pace of their release linked to the security situation in southern Lebanon.
Israeli officials concede that when the prisoners were moved from southern Lebanon into Israel in April it was a violation of international law. The Shiites are not prisoners of war but civilian detainees, and the Fourth Geneva Convention prohibits the transfer of civilians to the territory of an occupying power.
Last night Peres and Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin made their first public comments on the hijacking incident. The prime minister told reporters in Haifa that the most useful contribution Israel could make was to say and do nothing "because it is not Israel that is conducting this matter."
Rabin said there had been no U.S. requests to Israel in connection with the hijacking.
"As of this moment, the U.S. position is that it does not intend to approach Israel to request that it release the detainees," Rabin said. "Therefore there is no point in assessing today what will happen when and if such a request is made. The Cabinet will discuss it and will decide. I do not think it would be wise today for any Cabinet member to state what his stand will be on a question we haven't been asked."
The hijacking has created a serious dilemma for the United States and Israel. Washington and Jerusalem in the past two days have appeared to be trying to put the public onus for what is likely to be seen as a caving in to terrorists' demands, or the public responsibility for whatever consequences may result from a refusal to free the Shiite prisoners, on each other.