• U.S.

Diplomacy: Putting It Back Together

5 minute read
Jill Smolowe

The situation called for soothing apologies and mutual assurances, anything to quell the bad feelings stirred by the hijacking a few weeks earlier of the Achille Lauro. Washington extended a hand to Italy, Egypt and Tunisia–and each, in turn, responded with varying degrees of warmth. In Italy, where a rancorous debate over Prime Minister Bettino Craxi’s handling of the incident toppled the government two weeks ago, Craxi took steps to resurrect his five-party coalition. In Egypt, where students had taken to the streets, burning American flags and chanting provocative anti-U.S. slogans, calm was restored. But even as the bruised countries sought to forgive, though perhaps not forget, new details of the Achille Lauro affair emerged to fan the flames of recrimination.

The healing process began Oct. 19 in Rome with a “Dear Bettino … Sincerely, Ron” letter from the White House, hand-delivered to Craxi by Deputy Secretary of State John Whitehead. After reading the President’s conciliatory message, Craxi announced his intention to attend last week’s minisummit in New York City called by Reagan. Hours before that meeting, the two men had a 25-minute chat. Craxi, who later described their conversation as “good, and not falsely friendly,” reiterated the reasons why he had ignored Washington’s Oct. 12 request for the provisional arrest of Mohammed Abul Abbas Zaidan and had allowed the man suspected by U.S. officials of masterminding the Achille Lauro hijacking to leave Italy. He had not, he assured the President, softened his stance on terrorism. Reagan, for his part, recounted Washington’s version of the affair and said that he understood the reasons for Craxi’s actions.

Craxi’s attempts to soothe ruffled feelings at home were less encouraging. After being invited by President Francesco Cossiga to stitch together Italy’s 45th postwar government, Craxi tried first to patch things up with his old coalition partners. Most notably, he opened talks with acting Defense Minister Giovanni Spadolini, who precipitated the government’s downfall by withdrawing his Republican Party from Craxi’s center-left coalition. In a meeting that insiders described as “cordially chilly,” Craxi and Spadolini pledged to continue talking. But Spadolini, who supports the U.S. and Israel and has opposed the Craxi government’s rapport with Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat, made it clear that he would not join a new coalition until Craxi clarified aspects of his foreign policy. Later Craxi hinted that he might try to form a coalition without Spadolini’s Republicans, touching off a strong denunciation by his most crucial partner, the dominant Christian Democrat Party.

Meanwhile, Whitehead continued on his three-stop damage-repair mission to Cairo, where he met for two hours with President Hosni Mubarak. At the end of the session, the Egyptian President exited tight-lipped through a side door, refusing to face reporters. Whitehead, however, announced that he had delivered a letter from Reagan that expressed the President’s “regret that developments took the course that they did” and his “hope that we could now put our recent differences behind us.” The warm headlines in the semiofficial Egyptian press the next day suggested that the Reagan letter had scored at least some points. That was an improvement from only two days earlier, when Mubarak in an interview for the CBS News program 60 Minutes called the Oct. 10 U.S. interception of an Egyptian plane carrying the accused hijackers a “stab in the back” and charged that Tunisia had colluded in the act.

Whitehead’s last stop was Tunis, where passions were still running high over the U.S. response to the Oct. 1 Israeli attack on P.L.O. headquarters in Tunisia that claimed more than 60 lives. The White House initially called the bombing a “legitimate response” to a previous act of terrorism. Following an angry reaction from Tunisia, the Administration relabeled the attack an “[understandable] expression of self-defense” but said that it “cannot be condoned.”

Yet another assessment was offered last week. After meeting with President Habib Bourguiba, Whitehead read a prepared statement. “The bombing surprised and shocked Americans as much as it did Tunisians,” he intoned. “We deplore it, as we deplore all acts of terrorism.” The formulation touched off a political brush fire, with State Department spokesmen insisting that Whitehead had not meant to imply that the Israeli raid was an “act of terrorism.” Whitehead’s talk with Bourguiba, however, was apparently successful. According to Tunisian officials, Bourguiba told Whitehead that “the page should be turned and the future worked upon.”

For all the attempts at patching things up, the Achille Lauro incident would not go away. Reports emerged from Sicily that Majed Youssef Molky, one of the four accused hijackers, had told an Italian prosecutor on the morning of his arrest, “Our intention was to take someone from the crew as a hostage so that when Israeli security agents came aboard the ship [at Ashdod], we would subsequently take them as hostages” and negotiate for the release of imprisoned Palestinians. Molky said that the four hijackers had arrived in Italy six weeks earlier and masqueraded as university students. He insisted that he had conceived the operation and that he had not received orders from Abbas.

At least one terrorist, however, was apparently telling a different story. It was confirmed last week that two of the accused had been moved from the maximum-security facility at Spoleto to prisons near Genoa, where magistrates last week granted U.S. officials permission to question them. Perhaps as a result of their testimony, another terrorist suspect was arrested on the outskirts of Rome. According to unconfirmed Italian press reports, one hijacker told Genoa investigators that Abul Abbas had masterminded their operation. He also reportedly said that Abul Abbas had promised to spring the four terrorists from prison, threatening to stage kidnaping and terror attacks in Italy if necessary. At week’s end a warrant for Abbas was issued, but he was still at large . –By Jill Smolowe. Reported by Dean Fischer/Cairo and Judith Harris/Rome

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