Israeli Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin said today that the Abu Nidal Palestinian faction appeared to be responsible for Friday's terrorist attacks in Rome and Vienna, and he and other officials here said Israel will base its decision on possible retaliation on its own security considerations, not on U.S. appeals for restraint.
Officials in Austria and Italy reported similar preliminary findings today, but they stressed that so far they had developed no firm evidence of involvement by the Abu Nidal faction. Austrian Interior Minister Karl Blecha said, however, that his country has "ruled out" responsibility of Yasser Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization for the attack in Vienna. Details on Page A10.
In Washington, a senior administration source said that Central Intelligence Agency analysts believe, but that they are by no means certain, that Abu Nidal was behind the attacks on Israeli airline counters at the airports in Rome and Vienna, in which 18 persons were killed and more than 100 wounded. This source said that it is expected to take a week to gather even circumstantial evidence on who was involved and that there was no prospect that a convincing case could ever be made.
Rabin, speaking via satellite from Israel, said on "Meet the Press" (NBC-WRC), "We don't know exactly, but it looks to us that the Abu Nidal group is responsible." But he repeated his government's official position that Arafat's PLO ultimately bears the responsibility for such attacks by breakaway groups. Abu Nidal split with Arafat in the early 1970s and has become one of his fiercest Palestinian enemies.
"Let's not forget," Rabin said, "attacks like this one" in the past "were carried out by the Arafat group, by the PLO. And no doubt it created a sense of competition between the various groups of Palestinian terrorists, groups who have to prove that they can do better than the other ones."
Also appearing on "Meet the Press," Ambassador Robert B. Oakley, the State Department's top counterterrorism official, said the United States had "indications that the government of Libya was very much involved" in an attack by the Abu Nidal faction on the Egyptian airline plane hijacked to Malta last month, and that "this is a very serious problem that we must deal with."
The CIA, according to a senior administration source, has firmly concluded that Libya is providing both financial and operational support to Abu Nidal, who most recently has been reported to be living in Libya.
[Libya today commended the attacks on the Rome and Vienna airports as "heroic" and said they resulted from the 1982 massacre of Palestinians at refugee camps in Beirut, the Libyan news agency reported. The Libyan statement also criticized those "Arab regimes and world public opinion" that "remain with folded arms before Zionist high-handedness."]
Rabin, asked about urgings from the Reagan administration that Israel be temperate in its response to the airport attacks, said that while "we have heard the message from Washington," Israel "will do what we consider to be vital to our interests in this prolonged war against terrorism."
He added, "I am not going to say anything [about] what we are going to do and where. For us it's a prolonged war."
Referring to U.S. appeals to Israel to temper its response to the airport attacks, a senior Israeli official briefing foreign journalists here said, "We don't need green lights or red lights. . . . We will act according to the facts at our hand."
The senior official, speaking on the condition that he not be identified, added, "We are not unaware of the considerations the American spokesman raised, but as usual it remains an Israeli decision, and we will act according to our consideration. I think that our American friends know that."
Acknowledging that Israel's decision on the question of retaliation against Palestinian guerrilla organizations could lead to profound consequences for the Middle East peace process, the senior official said of the airport attacks, "Whoever did it was doing it to damage the peace process. Everytime something like this happens, this aim is partly achieved."
But, he added, "we always act not according to certain urgings to be restrained or to be aggressive. We act according to the circumstances and the relevant conditions. We are interested more than anyone else in the continuation of the peace process."
The official referred to the Oct. 1 Israeli air strike against the Tunisian headquarters of the PLO and said, "But, like in the case of Tunisia, when we knew exactly who was behind the terrorist activity . . . it is traditional policy to act against terrorism at the time and place we decide."
The official said he did not believe the Tunisian air strike had weakened the peace process.
When asked whether he believed Abu Nidal's faction staged the attacks to discredit Arafat, the Israeli official replied, "The fact that the PLO has denied responsibility and condemned it is, for us, no proof that they are not behind it. It is not proof to the contrary either, but in the past, like in Larnaca, there was a denial and it was then clearly established who was responsible."
He was referring to the Sept. 25 murder of three Israelis aboard a yacht in a Cyprus marina by pro-Palestinian gunmen, which led to the retaliatory bombing of the PLO headquarters in Tunisia.
The CIA analysis is that the airport attacks had all the earmarks of an operation by Abu Nidal's group, which is characterized by indiscriminate attacks and use of terrorist groups that are hard to penetrate.
Oakley, on "Meet the Press," said communications between the United States and Israel in the aftermath of the attacks in Rome and Vienna were aimed at preventing "a sudden escalation of conflict" that could destroy the prospects of peace between Israel and moderate Arab states.
"A terrorist attack can touch off a much broader conflict," he said, recalling Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon in retaliation for an attack by Abu Nidal's group on the Israeli ambassador in London.
"I wouldn't say that the thrust of the U.S. message is that we want Israel to stop its efforts to combat terrorism," Oakley said. "We believe that terrorism must be combatted. It must be combatted by many different governments, not one alone."
U.S. officials in Washington said privately that the message to Israel was aimed primarily at dissuading an Israeli attack against Syria in the aftermath of the airport assaults.
Meanwhile, Sara Doron, a member of parliament from the rightist Likud bloc, called on the government to initiate a stronger line of public information in western countries to counter what she termed a "forgiving attitude toward terrorism."
The government's position, Doron said, should not differentiate between Arafat's Fatah wing and breakaway groups such as Abu Nidal's.
The Cabinet today heard a detailed secret report on the airport attacks from Rabin but made no public statement on it.
Rabin, speaking to the United Jewish Appeal here, urged that Israeli armed forces inflict "the maximum damage" to terrorist centers wherever they can be found.
Asked on "Meet the Press" about the case of Jonathan Jay Pollard, a U.S. Navy civilian analyst charged with transferring classified materials to Israel, he said, "I believe that the case on our part is closed."