The Israeli government released a partial transcript tonight of a ship-to-shore telephone conversation between Palestinian guerrilla leader Mohammed Abbas and the hijackers of the Italian liner Achille Lauro that it said proves Abbas was in control of the hijackers at least during one stage of the hostage crisis.
The Israeli Army command said intelligence authorities had passed the transcript to Italian authorities before Abbas was allowed to leave Italy for Yugoslavia Saturday night, ostensibly for lack of evidence linking him to the hijackers.
An Army spokesman here said the transcript was being released in response to repeated requests by foreign correspondents seeking evidence to support the Israeli government's claim that Abbas was not only a negotiator in the surrender of the hijackers to Egyptian authorities in Port Said, but was a key figure in the takeover of the ship.
The transcript of a conversation that the Israeli spokesman said took place on Oct. 9 shows that Abbas told the four hijackers not to harm the passengers and to apologize to them and to the ship's crew and captain. An American passenger, 69-year-old Leon Klinghoffer, was killed on Oct. 8.
The transcript also quotes Abbas as telling the hijackers to explain to those on board that "our objective" was not to hijack the vessel. The group Abbas heads, the Palestine Liberation Front, has previously said the original plan was to use the vessel to infiltrate terrorists into Israel.
Along with other evidence, the transcript is at the center of a major diplomatic row that has developed between the United States, with Israeli backing, and Italy over whether the Italians had enough evidence to hold Abbas.
In Washington today, U.S. officials said the transcript demonstrates that Abbas can be held criminally liable and prosecuted for the ship hijacking, because he had approved and set in motion a plan to infiltrate Israel that went awry and resulted in the hijacking.
Until tonight, the government had refused to provide details of Abbas' alleged involvement, saying that to do so would compromise intelligence sources. The Israeli government has not supplied evidence connecting Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat with the incident.
The abbreviated transcript, which an Army command spokesman said was "part of a conversation" as the Achille Lauro lay at anchor off Port Said, suggested that Abbas knew the hijackers by name.
Abbas is quoted as saying, "Listen to me well. First of all, the passengers should be treated very well. In addition, you must apologize to them and the ship's crew and to the captain and tell them our objective was not to take control of the ship. Tell them what your main objective is . . . can you hear me well?"
The answer from the hijacker identified as "Majid" was, "Right, we talked to them and we told them that our objective was not to take control of the ship. Roger?"
Israeli officials have maintained that Abbas, in league with Arafat, planned to place the hijackers aboard the Italian ship with the intent of infiltrating them into the Israeli port of Ashdod for a terror operation. Abbas and other leaders of his wing of the Palestine Liberation Front had already admitted the hijackers had planned to land at Ashdod. They said the gunmen seized the ship only after they were discovered by the ship's crewmen.
An Israeli military source tonight conceded that the transcript failed to link Arafat to the hijacking. But the source said that additional radio intercepts or other intelligence data could not be provided without compromising intelligence sources.
Post correspondent Loren Jenkins reported from Rome:
Despite what Reagan administration officials are saying, sources close to Italian Prime Minister Bettino Craxi maintain that the evidence submitted to the Italian government was inadequate and superficial for Italian juridical requirements.
These sources said that the documents submitted by Attorney General Edwin Meese III early Saturday morning, and later by the FBI, represented no real evidence of Abbas' complicity in the hijacking but were rather a summary of promised evidence to come, which Craxi has said did not meet Italian judicial standards for a "provisional arrest" pending extradition proceedings.
Meese's insistence that the Italian-U.S. extradition treaty demands automatic 45-day arrest of extradition suspects is not accepted here as a valid argument by Italian officials, because they point out that this is not a "normal case" of someone who happened to be in the country when extradition was requested.
As one official close to Craxi put it, "We are talking of a very special case, of a man, Abu Abbas, who first of all mediated the surrender of the hijackers and maybe saved hundreds of lives at the behest of the Italian and Egyptian governments; a man who was in possession, rightly or wrongly, of an Iraqi diplomatic passport and who benefited from Egyptian diplomatic immunity as an official passenger of an official Egyptian government plane and who, rightly or wrongly, also came to Italy as the result of a clear, abnormal violation of international law by the United States" -- the U.S. interception.