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State Dept. Hints of ‘possible’ Shultz Visit to Middle East

Is Secretary of State George Shultz setting out for a new round of peacemaking efforts in the Middle East? — If observers here are wondering, they appear to be in the good company of the White House and Pentagon, as well as the State Department and the Secretary himself.

After maintaining for the past week two that Shultz had no intention of traveling to the region any time soon, the White House said on Thursday that “there are plans for a possible visit.” Although no time frame has been established yet, said White House spokesman Edward Djerejian, “it’s in the planning stage.”

The comment comes just a day after Shultz told reporters on his flight to Canada Wednesday that despite American willingness “to push the peace process along,” it is useless to try and “force events that aren’t there.” “We’d like to push but we have got to have something to push with,” Shultz said. Speaking on NBC television’s “Today Show,” Thursday, Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger was dragged into the guessing game as well.

“I don’t know whether that’s been settled or whether it’s anything more at this point than a story,” the Secretary said. “There has certainly been talk of it and there have been some countries who have been interested in having him come.”

Most recently, Israel has been pushing for renewed high-level U.S. involvement in the peace process, but more particularly, in efforts to resolve the lingering dispute between Egypt and Israel over Taba, the small strip of land on Israel’s southern border which both countries claim. Israel has remained in effective control over the territory since it withdrew from the Sinai in April 1982.

STATE DEPT. AIDE IN EGYPT

State Department legal adviser Abraham Sofaer is currently in Egypt in an effort to mediate an agreement on terms of reference for arbitration. A State Department spokesman said that “progress was made” in the talks on Taba that took place in Herzliya last week.

Back at the State Department the nuance – reading exercise was straining the minds of observers to the breaking point after spokesman Charles Redman explained the status of the as yet unscheduled Mideast trip by saying that the Secretary “has made no decision” regarding travels to the region. This replaced the standard State Department response of late, according to which the Secretary “has no plans” at present to go to the Middle East.

Nonetheless, officials at the State Department maintain that contrary to the imagination of the State Department lingo interpreters, the Secretary has authentically not made up his mind. One official even said that “if I had to bet I would bet that Shultz would not make a trip.”

SHULTZ’S CAUTION EXPLAINED

The Administration, and Shultz in particular, has been somewhat hesitant to renew any high level role in the Middle East without a near guarantee of the efforts yielding fruit. The caution goes back to the Secretary’s bitter experience of having put himself on the line in 1982 to work out an agreement between Israel and Lebanon, only to see it dissolve in the face of Syrian opposition.

After the failure of Jordan’s King Hussein to win the endorsement of Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasir Arafat for proposed peace efforts, the U.S. has been in what it has called a period of “reflection” about what precisely its role should be in seeking a settlement of the Arab-Israel dispute.

In the meantime, according to the State Department official, Shultz might agree to limit the objective of a visit to finalizing an agreement on how the Taba dispute should be resolved. The official said that this would depend on whether Sofaer is unable to mediate an agreement.

Vice President George Bush has tentatively scheduled a trip to the Middle East in mid-July which will include visits to Israel, Egypt and Jordan.

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