Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres, seeking to prevent the TWA airliner hijacking from creating a rift with the United States, telephoned Secretary of State George P. Shultz yesterday to express support for U.S. refusal to bow to terrorism and sympathy for the Americans held hostage in Beirut.
"We feel about them as we would about our own people," Peres reportedly told Shultz in what diplomatic sources said was the start of an effort to influence American public opinion and thereby ease the sense of isolation from the United States that the situation is creating among Israelis.
The sources said Peres also was trying to minimize any damage caused by Israeli Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin in a televsion interview Thursday. Rabin said that if the United States wants Israel to accede to the hijackers' demands for the release of more than 700 Lebanese Shiite Moslems and other Arab prisoners held in Israel, it should say so directly and not "play games."
According to the sources, Rabin's remarks reflected a widespread sense of frustration among Israelis over their perception that they are being made "the bad guys" in the situation. However, the sources said, that frustration is directed not at the Reagan administration, which publicly has insisted that it will not ask Israel to bow to terrorist demands, but at a more amorphous sense that U.S. public opinion believes the Jewish state is being too stubborn in refusing to release its prisoners immediately.
The sources said that Israeli leaders, encouraged by prominent members of the American Jewish community, believe that it is crucial to explain to the U.S. public, Congress and media its view that surrendering to terrorist demands only encourages further terrorism. To that end, the Israelis are planning an aggressive media campaign beginning Sunday, when Peres is scheduled to appear on NBC's "Meet the Press" and Rabin on CBS's "Face the Nation."
In another apparent bid to reassure Americans that Israel intends to cooperate in the delicate maneuvering to free the hostages, Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir said yesterday that while his country will not bow to the hijackers' demands, it intends to proceed with plans announced earlier to free its Lebanese prisoners as soon as security conditions in southern Lebanon permit.
The thrust of both Israeli and U.S. responses to the hijackers has been to refuse to link the fate of the hostages to release of the prisoners and to warn that insistence on such linkage would only impede the return home of those Lebanese held in Israel. Israeli Defense Ministry officials said yesterday that the detainees held at Israel's Atlit Prison total 766, of whom 570 are Shiites, 147 Palestinians and the remaining 49 Druze, Christians and Sunni Moslems.
"Israel will continue releasing prisoners if the situation in southern Lebanon will permit us," Shamir said. "But it has nothing to do with the last hijacking. We will not take any further steps under pressure of terrorism."
Peres, in an interview with Israeli radio, said the big problem facing Israel was how to release the detainees and "not make it look as if there is a sort of generalized capitulation to the hijackers."
That marked a shift from the tendency of Israeli leaders in the immediate aftermath of the hijacking a week ago to characterize the situation as an American problem involving American citizens and to say that Israel would release its prisoners only if the United States publicly asked it to do so.
The initial Israeli stance caused considerable irritation among U.S. officials, who had proclaimed that they would make no such request, and it fanned the impression in this country of Israeli insensitivity to the hostages' plight. On the Israeli side, there also was a sense that the administration, despite its disclaimers about not putting pressure on the Peres government, actually wanted Israel to free its prisoners, and the frictions generated by these crosscurrents finally were exposed to public view in both countries by Rabin's television outburst.
Rabin's charges reportedly shocked Shultz and other senior U.S. officials. It also is known to have prompted the Israeli Embassy here and leaders of American Jewish organizations to advise Peres that Israel could face a potentially serious loss of support in U.S. public opinion if it did not act promptly to head off a rift.
The first move was Peres' call yesterday to Shultz. State Department spokesman Bernard Kalb said Peres had taken the opportunity "to express his and Israel's full support and admiration for the position that the United States has taken . . . . He expressed his deep sympathy for the American hostages and for their families, saying that, 'We feel about them as we would about our own people.'
"The secretary expressed his appreciation for the prime minister's message and assured the prime minister that our position remains firm, that we will make no deals or concessions with terrorists, and we will not ask others to do so," Kalb added.
In a speech yesterday to the Zionist General Council, Peres also invoked themes similar to those sounded by President Reagan in recent days. He called for "organized and consistent international responsibility" to combat terrorism, praised the United States as "determined not to submit to terrorism" and stressed: "As far as I know, there has been no change in this U.S. stand, nor has the U.S. approached Israel with a request that it take any action."