Behind the Headlines Strategy for the Middle East

The Carter Administration is spreading the word that its Middle East policy is firmly charted and the course it is taking will not be revised because of domestic criticism.

The Administration acknowledges that it has problems with Congressional and American public opinion over its Middle East course but it must stay with it and it is attempting to explain its policy in terms of the national interest and U.S. commitments, it was indicated.

These were among the points a “senior U.S. official” made to selected reporters Thursday at the State Department on a background basis, in the wake of President Carter’s address at the World Jewish Congress (WJC) last Wednesday and two meetings by U.S. officials at the State Department a week earlier with American Jewish leaders and the Jewish media.

Intense criticism has been aroused against the Administration’s Mideast policy, especially by the U.S.-Soviet joint statement of Oct. 1. Sen. Howard Baker (R. Tenn.), the Republican Senate minority leader, and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger both attacked the Administration’s policy before the WJC, Baker explicitly and Kissinger implicitly.

At the same time, Senate majority leader Robert C. Byrd (D. W.Va.), Sen. Abraham Ribicoff (D. Conn.) and Rep. Paul Findley (R. III.) defended Carter’s Mideast policy as he had outlined it to the WJC. Noting that this is the “time to cool rhetoric,” Ribicoff told the Senate Thursday, “I trust” the President, Vice President and Secretary of State on the Middle East as a Senator, as an American and as a Jew.

SAY U.S.-USSR STATEMENT IS A PLUS

The Jewish Telgraphic Agency learned that the official at Thursday’s background briefing was Assistant Secretary of State Hodding Carter who articulates Secretary of State Cyrus Vance’s policy almost daily at briefings. The JTA learned that Carter said much of America’s Jewish community and some Senators criticize the U.S.-Soviet Mideast statement but that the U.S. thinks it got the better part of the bargain. His contention was that while the U.S. allowed the use of “legitimate rights” to appear in the statement the Soviets agreed to “normal relations”.

“Legitimate rights” of the Palestinians, Hodding Carter said, “could” include human rights and status rights but it is for the parties at the Geneva conference to determine them. He denied that “legitimate rights” is a code phrase for “a Palestinian state”.

He volunteered, it was said, to the reporters that the Carter Administration does not think the Palestine Liberation Organization necessarily represents the Palestinians. For that reason, he said, the Administration refers to “Palestinians” instead of to the PLO.

The spokesman said the Middle East, SALT, Southern Africa and Panama are the Administration’s four main foreign policy concerns, with the Middle East first. The second set of foreign policy concerns are human rights, nuclear proliferation and transfer of weapons among nations abroad.

SEEKING TO WIN SUPPORT

In seeking to win public support, the Administration has gone to unprecedented lengths with the American Jewish community, in particular, on the Middle East issue and with Congressional figures and others on SALT and other matters dealing with detente and the Soviet Union. However, the opponents are not being satisfied apparently with the official explanations, open or on background, public or private.

The fact that the Arab governments and the PLO were elated by the President’s statements and Administration tactics over the past eight months while the Israelis and their supporters have been correspondingly subdued indicates the reaction toward the Carter Middle East policy.

Neither the President nor any spokesman has flatly said he will repudiate the PLO but rather they have watered down the kind of statement they now expect from the terrorist leaders so they can talk with them. In addition, the Administration has given approval for a PLO official to enter the U.S. but refuses to reveal the circumstances.

While the President told the WJC he prefers not to have a Palestinian state, he does not make explicit what he does want to see in the form of sovereignty on the West Bank and what he precisely means by “secure and recognized” borders for Israel.

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