The Israeli government has been led to believe that the Reagan administration does not want Israel to release the more than 700 Arab detainees who are central to the TWA hijacking drama until the United States is assured of the safety of the 39 American hostages from the hijacked airliner, according to well-informed sources here.
Despite increasingly blunt public statements by Reagan administration officials that Israel should release immediately the Arab detainees whose freedom has been demanded by the hijackers, officials here expressed confidence that Israel's position reflected U.S. desires. They strongly suggested that the Israeli stance was being closely coordinated with Washington.
"The Americans do not want to see any linkage between the hostages and the prisoners," said one senior official.
However, if the Israeli understanding of U.S. intentions was correct, it appeared that the Reagan administration has linked the American hostages and the Arab prisoners by signaling Israel to sit tight on its detainees until the safety of the Americans is guaranteed.
Israeli television reported last night that just such an understanding had been reached between the United States and Israel. This was denied by some officials today, but other sources suggested that it was more accurate than contradictory reports that the United States wanted Israel to continue to release the Arab prisoners in stages.
As reports began to circulate of an imminent move of the American hostages to Damascus, it appeared that the reported U.S.-Israeli understanding may have played a key role in resolving the crisis.
There were no claims here today of a firm agreement between the United States and Israel in the hostage crisis. Officials spoke in terms of "understandings," and suggested that the amount of contact and coordination between the two governments has been greater than has appeared in public.
The Israeli understanding, as conveyed here today, is that the release of the prisoners before the safety of the American hostages is assured would likely undermine the Reagan administration's negotiating position.
From their comments, it appeared that the key issue now, as seen by the Israelis and possibly the United States, was whether Nabih Berri, leader of the Lebanese Shiite Moslem militia Amal, who is negotiating for the original hijackers, can guarantee the safety of the hostages as part of any deal worked out by the Reagan administration.
"The problem is not Israel," said an official close to Prime Minister Shimon Peres. "The problem is if Nabih Berri can deliver."
He added, "The American position is that it should lead and Israel's is a willingness to help. There is no Israeli position as such."
It did not appear that a possible major role for Syria in resolving the crisis, as reported from Beirut today, posed a major problem for Israel. The Israelis have not objected to third parties being involved in a settlement, but have insisted that they will deal directly only with the United States.
The comments of Israeli officials followed blunt remarks yesterday by an unnamed White House official who said the United States expects Israel to free the Arab prisoners without being directly asked to do so.
"We figure that Peres can read our minds," the U.S. official said.
The Israeli government has pledged to be as helpful as possible in the hijacking case, but has insisted that it will consider releasing the mostly Shiite detainees it holds at the Atlit Prison only in response to a direct request from the senior level of the Reagan administration.
Israeli officials have made it clear, and reiterated today, that such a request need not be made in a public forum. They said they expected U.S. wishes to be conveyed through official channels, presumably those that the officials suggested are now being used to coordinate the U.S.-Israeli response to the hijacking crisis.
In the meantime, statements to the news media -- including a strong hint earlier this week by Vice President Bush, who said that "people being held against international law should be released" -- will not affect the Israeli posture, the sources said.
The visible level of U.S.-Israeli contacts is likely to rise next week with the arrival in Washington of David Kimche, the director general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry. Kimche leaves here for the United States Saturday night on a previously scheduled visit, but there were strong suggestions today that his mission will be dominated by the hostage crisis.
The Reagan administration has vowed not to give in to the hijackers' demands or to pressure Israel to free the Arab prisoners. At the same time, the steady drumbeat of indirect public suggestions and blunt comments by anonymous U.S. officials has clearly increased pressure on Israel.
But Israeli officials continued to insist today that they are acting in concert with the administration. They said signs of erosion in support for Israel by U.S. public opinion were "worrisome" and "unjustified," but suggested that this would be overcome "when we end this situation in a positive fashion."
"There has been no permanent damage" to Israel's standing in the United States, a senior official said.
The Israeli position, as understood from sources here, is that any response now to indirect or even blunt suggestions relayed through the news media could jeopardize the overall U.S. strategy, which is seen as gaining the release of the hostages with a minimum of linkage to the Arab prisoners in Israel. When the time comes to consider a decision regarding the prisoners, that will be made clear by Washington through established channels, according to this view.
Statements and hints from Washington calling for Israel to act now were interpreted here as an attempt to ease the domestic political burden on the Peres government if it releases the Arab prisoners in response to a later clear-cut request or signal through official channels.
From the outset of the hijacking drama, the assumption here has been that Israel would have no choice but to comply with a direct request from the Reagan administration.