Prime Minister Shimon Peres today described Israel's interception of a Libyan jet yesterday as "clearly a mistake," but he expressed hope the motives will be understood by the United States, Israeli state radio said tonight.
The radio said Peres told a parliamentary committee that the decision to intercept the civilian aircraft was made "within minutes."
It was unclear, however, whether Peres felt the mistake was in launching the operation, or in the fact that the alleged terrorists Israel hoped to catch were not on board the plane.
Army Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Moshe Levy called the action a "failure," according to Israeli Army radio. "The operation was fine, but the result was not what we wanted," Levy told soldiers in northern Israel today.
Defense Minister Yitzak Rabin said such "initiatives" were necessary, even if "we did not achieve the entire goal and perhaps not even part of it."
In the aftermath of the interception and forced landing, much of today's reaction here seemed to focus on embarrassment at the failure of Israel's much-vaunted intelligence service rather than regret at the act itself.
But in an interview tonight, Ezer Weizman, who is a Cabinet member from Peres' Labor alliance and a former defense minister, said he had not been consulted in the decision to undertake the operation. With some apparent bitterness, he said that "from what I know today, I would have voted against it had I been asked."
Contemplating the possibility of retaliation, Weizman noted that Israeli commercial planes pass through many other countries and said he was concerned about similar operations being launched against them.
That fear also was voiced by retired Gen. Aharon Yariv, a former chief of Israeli military intelligence and current director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University.
The Israeli military said yesterday that the plane, intercepted in international air space east of Cyprus while flying from Libya to Syria, had been "suspected of carrying people involved in planning terrorist attacks against Israel."
The widely held and undenied assumption here is that Israeli intelligence erroneously had concluded that as many as four radical Palestinian guerrilla leaders were on board.
Instead, the plane was carrying the deputy leader of Syria's ruling Baath Party, Abdullah Ahmar, and eight other Syrian and Lebanese politicians and a three-man crew. After being held for five hours at an airfield in northern Israel, all were released and the plane continued to Damascus.
Syria today reportedly sent messages to more than 100 Arab, Islamic and nonaligned nations appealing for collective action against Israel in response to the seizure. A number of Arab governments, including Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Tunisia and Iraq, have condemned what they described as "state terrorism" by Israel.
The U.N. Security Council, convened at the request of Syria to condemn the Israeli action, held a second meeting tonight. A draft resolution submitted by Syria also asked that "adequate measures" be taken against Israel if it seizes another aircraft.
In a broadcast on Tripoli radio today, Libya said Israel had no fear of a U.N. resolution since it knew it would be vetoed by the United States. Repeating yesterday's charge of U.S. involvement in the operation -- denied in Washington by the Defense and State departments -- the broadcast called the United States Israel's "partner in crime."
Libya appealed for international understanding "when we decide to strike back."
"If the Americans and Zionists want to open this door," it said, there would be a response to ensure that "there will not remain a single safe means of travel."
Western European governments also criticized Israel. In London, where Peres was warmly received on an official visit two weeks ago, Foreign Secretary Geoffrey Howe told Parliament that the interception had set a "dangerous precedent" and was "in contravention of international law."
A number of Israeli officials and commentators argued today, however, that there was a precedent: the U.S. military interception last year of an Egyptian airliner carrying the hijackers of the Achille Lauro.
The Israeli interception, in which two military jets flanked the Libyan executive jet as it entered international air space near Cyprus and dipped their wings as a sign the aircraft was to follow them, was a near carbon copy of the U.S. operation forcing the Egyptian plane to land at a U.S. base in Sicily.
"I've noticed that the United States, which is certainly internationally law abiding and subscribes to the rules of international behavior, was forced to use similar action regarding a plane belonging to a friendly state," Israeli Communications Minister Amnon Rubinstein said in an interview today. "After all, this interception did apply to a country which has declared total war against Israel."
There were conflicting accounts of how the captives spent their hours in Israeli custody. Government reports here said that "once the military realized their intelligence had been incorrect, the 12 aboard were escorted to a lounge and given drinks and sandwiches."
But one of the passengers, Omar Herb, secretary general of the Lebanese Arab Socialist Federation, however, told reporters in Damascus that the captives had been searched and told to sit on the ground with their hands above their heads while they were interrogated with "threats and curses."