46. Editorial Note

On August 29, 1969, members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) hijacked a TWA aircraft bound for Athens, Greece and forced it to land in Damascus, Syria. While the Syrian Government permitted TWA, an American-based airline, to take most of the flight’s passengers and its crew on to their final destinations and elsewhere, it detained six Israelis, who remained in Damascus with the damaged aircraft and its captain. Because Syria had severed diplomatic relations with the United States during the Arab-Israeli war of 1967, the Department of State relied upon the Government of Italy, which represented U.S. interests in Syria, and other governments and international organizations to help resolve the matter. (Department of State press statement, August 30; Department of State Bulletin, September 15, 1969, page 246; telegram 147543 to Tel Aviv, August 31, published in Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, volume E–1, Documents on Global Issues, 1969–1972, Document 12)

Assistant Secretary of State Joseph Sisco asked Shlomo Argov, Minister of the Israeli Embassy, if the Government of Israel wanted to delay the delivery of the U.S. Phantoms, due to arrive on September 5, because of the incendiary effect the shipment might have in Syria and what that might mean for the hostages. The Minister responded: “to raise this question with Jerusalem at this time would be QTE like pouring high octane gasoline on a fire, UNQTE” and the delivery proceeded as scheduled. (Telegram 147567 to Tel Aviv, September 1; National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 604, Country Files, Middle East, Israel, Vol. II)

Tensions between the Governments of the United States and Israel emerged over the Israeli detainees when the Israeli press quoted Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir as saying that “it was inconceivable that airline such as TWA would abandon passengers in Syria.” (Telegram 3336 from Tel Aviv, August 31; ibid.) In response, Ambassador Walworth Barbour told Israeli representatives to “keep matters in perspective and not get confused as to who was committing crimes and who trying to help situation.” (Telegram 3350 from Tel Aviv, September 1; ibid.) By [Page 157]September 2, U.S. efforts led to the release of all but two male Israeli passengers, over whom negotiations stalled, while the airplane’s captain remained in Damascus because TWA and the Nixon administration feared the repercussions of a bitter reaction from Israel to his release alone. (Memorandum from Rogers to Nixon, September 2; Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, volume E–1, Documents on Global Issues, 1969–1972, Document 15; telegram 3588 from Tel Aviv, September 18; National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 604, Country Files, Middle East, Israel, Vol. II)

Meanwhile, the International Committee of the Red Cross monitored the condition of the hostages, assuring the U.S. Government that they were being treated well, and the Nixon administration worked to keep Israel from taking any action that might inflame the situation. As for the hijackers, they were expected to be tried by the Syrian Government. (Memorandum from Eliot to Kissinger, September 19, published in Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, volume E–1, Documents on Global Issues, 1969–1972, Document 22)

On November 6, Director General of Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Gideon Rafael, informed the Embassy in Tel Aviv that the Government of Israel had decided to pursue an ICRC-engineered, three-cornered, POW exchange with the United Arab Republic to obtain the release of the Israeli hostages. (Telegram 4196 from Tel Aviv, November 6; ibid., Document 32) A “gratified” Department of State offered to facilitate the exchange, which included the United Arab Republic’s release of two Israeli pilots and Syria’s release of the two remaining TWA passengers in return for Israel’s release of one Egyptian pilot, 17 Egyptian POWs from the 1967 war, the crews of two Egyptian fishing vessels captured in Israeli waters, 11 Egyptian civilians kidnapped in raids, and two Syrian pilots held by Israel. (Telegram 189503 to Tel Aviv, November 8; National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 605, Country Files, Middle East, Israel, Vol. III; and telegram 194183 to Beirut, November 19; ibid., Box 620, Country Files, Middle East, Lebanon, Vol. I)

By the third week of November, no action had been taken, and the deal appeared to be in jeopardy when the Syrian Government raised the stakes, demanding that 11 additional Syrians detained in Israel be released. (Telegram 4348 from Tel Aviv, November 20, published in Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, volume E–1, Documents on Global Issues, 1969–1972, Document 33; telegram 4363 from Tel Aviv, November 24; National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 605, Country Files, Middle East, Israel, Vol. III) Israel’s delay in providing a written guarantee to the ICRC at the end of November put the deal further at risk, but everything fell into place on December 5, when the hijacked TWA aircraft carrying the two Israelis was allowed to leave, ar[Page 158]riving in Athens at 3:35 p.m. local time. (Telegram 199600 to Tel Aviv, November 28, telegram 4480 from Tel Aviv, December 5, and telegram 5378 from Athens; all ibid.)