Sharp comments by Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Prime Minster Shimon Peres today revealed the first public signs of strain between the United States and Israel over the possibility of meeting the demands of the hijackers of TWA Flight 847.
Rabin said on television that the United States should not "play games" with Israel over the hijackers' demand for the release of more than 700 Shiite prisoners held in Israel.
"Look, what do you expect Israel to do?" an obviously agitated Rabin said in response to questions on the ABC Nightline program. "You say, 'We are not to give in to the demands of terrorism. We are not going to give in to any blackmail. But we the United States want you Israel to do so even without asking you to do so.' "
Rabin was apparently reflecting the widespread impression here that the Reagan administration, while publicly vowing never to surrender to terrorists' demands, has quietly let it be known that it would like Israel to free the Lebanese Shiite Moslems that it holds.
There have been numerous reports to this effect in the Israeli press in recent days.
Peres said today that Israel is not responsible for the hostages.
"Israel will not make any comments because we're not responsible for the rescue of the people who were hijacked," Peres said during a tour of the resort town of Netanya.
"Our hearts are with the hijacked people, and we pray for their safety, but . . . no one likes that another party intervenes either by declarations or promises or otherwise," Peres said.
Another Israeli official said today that Israel's previously announced plan eventually to release all of the Shiites would not be affected by the hijacking and suggested that some of the prisoners could be let go soon.
"If the hostages are held for a very long time -- if there is a Tehran situation, and we hope there isn't -- then we may go on releasing part or all of the detainees out of our own interest," said the official, who reflects the thinking of the Israeli Foreign Ministry.
He added, "Since we see no linkage between the hijacking and release of the detainees, even if it goes on, it has no effect on our decision to release or not to release. So if we release some tomorrow, say, and that is just speculation, it should not be seen as part of a deal. We won't delay the release because of the hijacking."
This statement contrasted with earlier remarks by Israeli Defense Ministry officials that the hijacking had "complicated" plans to release the Lebanese prisoners. Earlier this month, Israel was on the verge of freeing more than 300 of the Shiites, but the release fell through at the last minute and then the hijacking drama intervened, making Israeli officials reluctant to free more prisoners when it might appear to be bowing to terrorism.
If anything, Rabin, who is the key Israeli government official dealing with the hijacking incident, appears to be hardening his position against releasing the Shiite prisoners unless there is a direct request to do so from the senior levels of the U.S. government.
The afternoon newspaper Maariv quoted the defense minister today as saying, "Circles in Washington want them to be the 'nice guys' and us Israelis to be the ones who give in to terrorism. That can't be allowed."
From the outset of the hijacking crisis, the Israeli government has staked out a position that it will be responsive to U.S. requests because the hijacking and the fate of the passengers and crew are "an American problem." They have praised President Reagan and the administration for "standing firm" in the face of the hijackers' demands but are clearly chafing under suggestions that Israel is in part responsible for the crisis because it is holding the prisoners whose release is being sought by the hijackers.
"Look, let's not play games," Rabin said in response to prodding by Nightline host Ted Koppel. "If there is a request on the part of the United States that this freeing the Shiites had to be done in relation, or as part of a deal for the release of the hostages, please, come out and say it."
At another point in the interview, Rabin, a former Israeli prime minister, said:
"Look, I'm not negotiating with you. I believe that the problem is an American problem. The hostages are Americans, they were caught on board an airline which carries the United States flag. The government has to make up its mind: What do they want to do? It's first and foremost their decision.
"I've never shrugged off my shoulders the need to make a decision as a prime minister and now as a defense minister, facing terror acts against Israelis. I expect the United States to do the same."
An aide to Rabin said there have not even been indirect suggestions or "hints" to Israel from the Reagan administration that Israel release the prisoners. But he said Rabin was "annoyed over public opinion" in the United States.
"There is this demand, this finger pointing at Israel, saying, 'Why can't you release them, and anyway you are holding them illegally,' " the official said.
This was a reference to charges, supported by the Reagan administration, that Israel's transfer of the civilian Lebanese detainees to a prison in Israel in April violated international law. Israeli officials have cited sections of international law that they contend allow the transfer.
Since the hijacking drama began last week, public opinion here appears to have hardened on the question of whether Israel should act voluntarily to free the Shiite prisoners and possibly gain the release of the American hostages. This is in part due to heavy criticism here over Israel's decision last month to free 1,150 Arab prisoners, including a number of convicted terrorists, in exchange for three Israeli soldiers, bringing charges that the lopsided deal would only encourage terrorist attacks on Israel.
"A question is arising in the American public. Why shouldn't Israel make it easier on the U.S. government and free the Shiites even if it isn't asked?" Rabin told soldiers in remarks broadcast today on Israeli Army radio, the Associated Press reported from Tel Aviv.
"Our answer is simple. We have a clear policy regarding the Shiites. It was determined before the plane was hijacked. We will not change it, unless the Israeli government is asked by the U.S. government explicitly, and then we will consider" a response, he said.
Underscoring Israel's increasing irritation at what it views as pressure from Washington to free the Shiites, Rabin said, "If the United States government has a position, let it come out and say so."
Rabin's comments appeared to reflect growing public sentiment here about the administration's handling of the hostage case.
"It is a strange game that the U.S. is playing with its Israeli ally in the TWA hijacking case," the Jerusalem Post said in an editorial today.
The newspaper complained that while U.S. officials will do nothing that might imply bending to terrorism, "privately, so to speak, word is being passed around that Washington expects Israel to do its duty, especially since the prisoners' transfer from Lebanon has already been condemned, though not too strongly, as a violation of the Geneva Conventions. Israel, having bowed to terrorist extortion before, might well do it again. Its hands are sullied as it is.
"America's hands, however, must be kept clean. Its reputation as a stalwart foe of terrorism, so far manifested mainly in brave rhetoric, must be preserved almost at any cost."