The Israeli government appeared firmly committed today to its insistence that only a direct, official request from the senior level of the Reagan administration will cause it to consider the immediate release of more than 700 Arab prisoners whose freedom is being demanded by the hijackers of TWA Flight 847.
Reflecting a decision apparently made last night by the government's so-called "inner cabinet" of 10 senior ministers, a well-informed official here said today, "The government stands by its policy not to yield to terror. That is, as far as Israel is concerned, the situation."
The official added: "If the Americans want something from us, they will tell us. If they don't tell us, we assume they don't want anything."
President Reagan, at a news conference last week, said he understood that Israel's holding of the Arab prisoners violated the Geneva Conventions, and Vice President Bush, at a news conference in Bonn Tuesday, said, "We think that people being held against international law should be released."
But a senior Israeli official said today that Bush's comments did not meet Israel's test.
"We are looking for a formal request, government-to-government, not a statement at a press conference," he said. "We have no need for hints. If the U.S. wants us to liberate these people, they should ask us. So far they haven't."
The official added that it was "immaterial" to Israel whether the direct request was made in a public fashion because, if made, "it will become public within 12 minutes."
The U.S. Embassy here has been "on the sidelines" throughout the crisis, one informed source said. Its acting chief, Robert Flaten, has met with Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin but not with Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir nor, apparently, with Prime Minister Shimon Peres.
From the outset of the hijacking crisis, Peres' delicately balanced coalition government has been under strong domestic pressure not to yield to the hijackers' demands. Israel's traditional refusal to bend to terrorists' demands has been strongly reinforced by last month's controversial prisoner exchange, in which 1,150 Arab prisoners, many of them convicted terrorists, were traded for three Israeli soldiers captured during the Lebanon war. The deal, strongly criticized at the time, has come under even more intense fire since the TWA hijacking, with some critics maintaining that it encouraged the hijackers to believe that they would succeed.
Peres' maneuvering room in the hijacking crisis is further limited, observers note, by Israel's continuing economic problems and by the absence of any diplomatic breakthrough that would give his Labor Party the momentum to seek a new electoral mandate before it must return the prime ministry to Shamir under its coalition agreement with Shamir's Likud bloc.
But a direct request from the Reagan administration would "create a new situation," said one official, allowing the Peres government to argue that given the stakes to Israel in its ties to the United States, and the dangers posed to those ties by the hostage crisis, there was no choice but to comply.
Addressing a world assembly of the Jewish Agency here tonight, Peres said that evidence of a growing sentiment in the United States for a weakening of American ties to Israel because of the hijacking would mean, if implemented in government policy, "a surrender to the trap of terror by proxy."
Peres, who was apparently reacting to a Washington Post-ABC News poll published this week that showed rising support for a distancing from Israel, said Israelis "feel deeply" about the American hostages "as our own."
He said Israel backed the Reagan administration's policy -- "not to surrender to terror, and then to bring back the innocent people who were hijacked safely to their homes."
Although early in the hostage crisis Israeli officials clearly felt the Reagan administration was playing a "double game," saying publicly that there would be no negotiation with the hijackers while privately passing word that Israel should free the Arab prisoners, officials here maintain there has been no major friction between the two governments and say both have consistently followed the same policy.
A senior official said today that Israel's early problems with American public opinion stemmed from its decision to say as little as possible about the hijacking while the Reagan administration considered its alternative. This led to public confusion in the United States about Israel's role, he said, but now Israel has clearly aligned itself with the Reagan administration's tough public stance.
Today's reiteration of the Israeli position followed 24 hours of intense diplomatic activity revolving around a possible French role in ending the crisis. The Israelis appeared firm in rejecting any approach to them by third parties such as the French, throwing the burden of being the first to bend to the hijackers' demands back to the Reagan administration.
The French government has indicated its willingness to take temporary control of the 39 remaining American hostages from the TWA airliner at its embassy in Beirut as part of a complex arrangement that would also include prior guarantees from Israel that the mostly Lebanese Shiite prisoners it holds would be freed almost immediately. But the French have made it clear that they will not assume a direct role in the hijacking drama unless they are assured that their embassy will not simply become the new place of captivity for the hostages while the crisis drags on indefinitely.
Toward that end, they have sought the Israeli guarantees, but the Israelis say they will only respond to the United States. Meanwhile, the United States has made no direct request in connection with the hijacking, according to both Israeli and independent sources.
Summing up the delicate diplomatic maneuvering of the last 24 hours, an Israeli source said tonight: "Nobody wants to be the bad guy. The French don't want to be the jailers of the hostages. The Americans don't want to ask us to yield. We don't want to yield."
Suggesting that the next move was still up to the Reagan administration, two senior officials here said today that Israel's position remained static. "There is no decision, no change. The policy remains the same," said one.
"There were no developments today," the other official said.
The potential role of the French was first raised yesterday by Nabih Berri, leader of the Lebanese Shiite Moslem militia Amal, who has assumed the role of chief negotiator for the original Shiite hijackers. Berri offered to turn over the American hostages from the TWA airliner to a western embassy in Beirut, with the understanding that they would later be freed in exchange for release of the prisoners held in Israel.
Seizing on this offer, Secretary of State George P. Shultz asked the French to get directly involved in resolving the hijacking ordeal. But French Foreign Minister Roland Dumas apparently was not satisfied with U.S. representations regarding Israel's intentions toward the Arab prisoners. Dumas telephoned Peres last night, reportedly asking for a timetable for release of the prisoners if France agreed to take temporary responsibility for the American hostages.
Sources here said today that Peres responded with Israel's "standard answer -- the prisoners will be released on the basis of the security situation in southern Lebanon, and Israel sees no linkage between the prisoners and the TWA hijacking."