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.