The Hostage Crisis/Shiite leader shows more flexibility in Beirut crisis. Offers to move hostages to Western embassy
NABIH Berri appears to be showing greater flexibility in his efforts toward ending the American hostage crisis in Beirut. The impression gaining ground among analysts is that Mr. Berri, leader of Lebanon's mainstream Shiite Muslim group, may be seeking a face-saving way out of the dilemma.
Yesterday, Berri released another hostage, Jimmy Dell Palmer, for health reasons, and said that another, identified as Simon Grossmayer, may be freed soon. More significant was his proposal to move the remaining 39 hostages to a Western embassy in Beirut, possibly the French or Swiss. Two Frenchmen being held in Beirut separately could also be included in the plan, he said. However, seven other Americans kidnapped over the past 18 months were not mentioned.
France indicated yesterday it may be willing to go along with the plan, which contained the provision that the government concerned not free the hostages until Israel frees the Lebanese prisoners it is holding.
The Americans were taken hostage June 14, when their TWA jet was hijacked by Shiites demanding that Israel release the more than 700 Lebanese prisoners, most of whom are Shiites.
Berri's more flexible approach seems to be in line with the thinking of several nations that enjoy direct or indirect influence in Lebanon -- Syria, Iran, and the Soviet Union.
Clearly, none of Washington's allies would agree to such a step without US approval of the plan, which would not necessarily speed up a formally agreed solution.
But moving the hostages to a Western embassy could ease tension, reduce the threat to their lives, improve their living conditions, and smooth the way to a settlement whereby the hostages' freedom would be traded for the release of the Lebanese prisoners by Israel.
That linkage -- rejected both by Washington and by Israel -- clearly remains an imperative for Berri and the original hijackers, who are believed to belong to a pro-Iranian faction more radical than his mainstream Amal movement.
Berri's offer may thus reflect a change of appearance rather than of solid content -- but it still raises the question of why he should want to appear more flexible and reasonable.
Berri dismissed any suggestion that he was intimidated by warnings from the White House that the US might try to close Beirut airport and blockade the Lebanese coast.
He repeated his demand that US warships should remain at least 12 miles off the Lebanese coast, and said that President Reagan must pledge ``not to attack innocents, even after the affair is over.''
Berri's offer could be dismissed as a ploy aimed at throwing the ball back into the American court.
The extent to which Syria, Iran, and the Soviet Union influenced his softer stand is unknown and perhaps variable. Berri's Amal movement has a close working relationship with Syria, but Berri has never been seen as a Syrian puppet. Tehran is known to be close to Lebanon's radical Shiite group called Hizbullah (``Party of God''), which is believed to be connected with the original hijackers of the TWA jet. But it was hard to miss a note of conscious irony in Berri's suggestion Wednesday that if Washington found the embassy proposal unacceptable, the hostages might be transferred to Damascus, under Syrian President Hafez Assad's auspices. ``And if that is unacceptable,'' he said, ``there is Iran.''
How much pressure influential outside forces are really putting on the Lebanese Shiites to end the affair is impossible to gauge, but they certainly seem to be going through the motions.
Syrian officials have for some time said they are working to resolve the situation. That claim is made more credible by the fact that their two major allies with which they have discussed the problem -- the Soviet Union and Iran -- have both criticized the hijacking.
A Soviet government spokesman on Wednesday condemned the hostage-taking, although the Kremlin blamed it on American and Israeli policies. The Soviet statement came after President Assad's visit to Moscow last week. Assad returned to Damascus in time for talks with the influential speaker of the Iranian parliament, Hojatolislam Hashemi Rafsanjani.
At the end of his stay in Damascus, Mr. Rafsanjani also criticized the hijacking. ``If Iran had known about it in advance, it would have taken action to prevent it,'' he said.
While in Syria, Rafsanjani held talks with Lebanese Shiite leaders, including the reputed religious mentor of Hizbullah, Sheikh Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah.
Why these three parties should now be flashing public red lights to the hijackers is open to speculation. But fear of direct US reprisals after the crisis is over may be a factor. It is known that in March, Washington sent Tehran a blunt but secret message warning that direct military action would be taken against Iran if any harm came to the five American kidnap victims then being held by the self-styled Islamic Jihad (``Islamic Holy War'') reckoned by US officials to be close to the Iranian-backed Hizbullah. (Three more Americans have since joined the original five, one of whom since gained freedom.)
Syria may also find itself in the front line of US reprisals, and Damascus and its Soviet backers may have a broader strategic reason for wanting to cool the situation and dissociate themselves from the hijacking. Lebanon's militant Shiites might not be impressed by American threats, but the possibility of direct US-Israel military cooperation in imposing a blockade on Lebanon, or carrying out reprisal actions there, may have dangerous wider implications for Syria -- especially if Washington perceives it as being implicated in the hijack affair.
Israel is known to be concerned about the build-up of Syrian military power, fueled by Soviet arms supplies, since the 1982 Israeli invasion.
Some informed Lebanese sources say there is a serious chance of a Syrian-Israeli clash in eastern Lebanon later this year or next spring. But sources in Israel believe such an action would only be undertaken if there is a clear green light from Washington.