Behind the Headlines New Helmsman in Troubled Waters
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Behind the Headlines New Helmsman in Troubled Waters

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While the Senate Foreign Relations Committee conducted its confirmation hearing of George Shultz as Secretary of State last week, a Connecticut Rabbi fasted outside the Senate Office Building to protest the appointment of the 61-year-old economist and Cabinet officer in the Nixon Administration.

Rabbi Ephraim Rubinger, of Temple B’nai Abraham in Meriden, who ended the fast when the Senate confirmed Shultz last Thursday charged that Shultz had worked actively against Israel while president of the Bechtel Group, the San Francisco based international engineering and construction firm which has a multi-billion dollar relationship with Saudi Arabia.

But among Jewish spectators who heard Shultz testify before the Committee the view was divided. One long-time observer of the Washington scene saw reasons for optimism in Shultz’s expression of support for the security of Israel while urging the need for strengthening ties in the Arab world. He cautioned detractors to wait and see what the new Secretary does.

However, others, including some Israelis, were upset by what they saw as a complete reversal of the positions taken by Shultz’s predecessor, Alexander Haig. Some claimed that Shultz was enunciating the Saudi Arabian line and they foresaw major clashes between the Reagan Administration and the government of Premier Menachem Begin. They foresaw U.S. pressure on Israel aimed at a withdrawal to the pre-1967 borders.


While this may be a little extreme, Shultz in his virtuoso performance before the Senate Committee, made it clear time and again that he considers the Palestinian issue at the heart of the Middle East conflict. The crisis in Lebanon makes painfully and totally clear a central reality of the Middle East: the legitimate needs and problems of the Palestinian people must be addressed and resolved, “urgently and in all their dimensions,” he said in his opening statement.

When Sen. Rudy Boschwitz (R. Minn.) challenged the assertion that the Palestinian problem was the central problem in the Mideast, Shultz agreed there are many problems in that region. “But I do think that without a satisfactory solution of this one it’s very hard to imagine the prospect of peace in the Middle East,” he added.

Shultz, however, stressed his commitment to the negotiations for autonomy for the Palestinian Arabs on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip under the Camp David process that “the United States is, and during my tenure will remain, a full partner.” with Egypt and Israel. He repeatedly asserted that the Palestinians must be represented in any negotiations dealing with their future by people who they consider as “legitimate” leaders. But he was never asked by any of the Senators how he proposes to bring them to the negotiating table, something neither the Carter Administration nor the Reagan Administration have been able to accomplish so far.


The new Secretary of State echoed the Administration position about the Palestine Liberation Organization. He said the PLO was only one claimant to represent the Palestinian people but said first they would have to recognize Israel’s right to exist, accept United Nations Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338 and give up terrorist activities. “Then you’ve got a different PLO and I’m sure that they would be welcomed,” Shultz said. “But that’s a totally different thing than the present situation.”

Another point Shultz made again and again is the need for “wide and ever strengthening ties with the Arabs,” on argument that Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, another former Bechtel executive frequently makes. It is from the Arabs “that the West gets much of its oil,” Shultz added. “It is with them that we share an interest and must cooperate in resisting Soviet Imperialism; it is with them, as well as Israel, that we will be able to bring peace to the Middle East.”

Sen. Howard Metzenbaum (D. Ohio), in joining the 97-0 Senate vote to confirm Shultz, expressed concern about the “pervasive” connection between Shultz, the Bechtel Group and the Arab world. But he said he hoped Shultz could use that Arab connection to bring peace to the Middle East.

While some concern had been expressed about Shultz’s connection with Bechtel, he appeared to be effective in dispelling the doubts among most Senators. He said he would end all relations with the company and would sign a document removing him from dealing with any matter involving Bechtel that comes up while he is at the State Department.


Shultz also sought to reassure Israel’s supporters, stressing that the U.S. must ensure Israel’s security. He agreed that Israel was a “strategic asset” for the U.S. but at the same time warned that Israel’s friends “weaken” the Jewish State when, in strengthening Israel’s security, they make no parallel effort to bring about a settlement of the Mideast issues.

While Shultz said he opposed Israel’s going into Lebanon, the removal of West Bank and Gaza mayors and the policy of establishing Jewish settlements on the West Bank, it was not he, but one of his questioners, Sen. Paul Tsongas (D. Mass.), who urged the Administration to put pressure on Israel to stop the settlement policy, in particular.

But Shultz may have been sending a signal to Congress when he noted that if pressure were to be placed on Israel it would need the support of Congress, which has always resisted such acts by Administrations. But Shultz pointed out that rather than pressure he would prefer emphasizing to Israel the benefits of a peace settlement.


Thus it is easy to see how Shultz’s testimony, while calming the worst fears of Israel’s supporters still leaves them with concern, a concern that can only decrease or grow once it is seen how Shultz conducts foreign policy.

At the same time, unlike Haig who wanted to be the “vicar” of American foreign policy and thus its chief spokesman, Shultz emphasized that he would work together with his fellow Californians, National Security Advisor William Clark and Weinberger and other aides in providing the advice on which the President can make the decisions. “He’s the boss,” Shultz said of Reagan.

Thus by the Administration’s own design, President Reagan must now bear direct praise or blame for his foreign policy, including his efforts in the Mideast.

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