Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, August 1987, pages 8-9

Special Report

The Metamorphosis of George Shultz

By Lynn Teo Simarski

This year's policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) featured US Secretary of State George Shultz as keynote speaker on opening night. At one point, when listing the parties "qualified" to talk peace at an international conference, Shultz asked and then answered his own pointed question: "Is the PLO qualified (to participate)? Hell, no!" He then invited the audience to echo his response; "Hell, no!" rose up from the exuberant crowd.

"Remember how afraid we were of Shultz when he first came?" commented a jubilant AIPAC delegate. "And now look at him!" Speakers praised Shultz for visiting Israel before he became Secretary of State, and while there, comforting the family of a former student of his killed in the 1973 war.

What brought Shultz for a repeat performance (the first was in 1985) at the national convention of the powerful US pro-Israel lobby, and prompted him to assume the role of cheerleader against the PLO? What transformed Israel's "Uncle" George Shultz—as an AIPAC speaker introduced him—from "not just a very, very good friend," but "a warm, deeply-committed partisan?" What made Shultz become, in the words of a prominent former lobbyist for Israel, the first US Secretary of State to take office with pro-Arab sympathies and then move away from them towards Israel?

AIPAC Initially Concerned About Shultz

Press accounts over Shultz's five-year term don't answer these questions, but they clearly record and date the shift. "It is only natural that friends of Israel should be apprehensive about this drastic change of guard...because of the questions that can legitimately be raised about the policy thrust of the Secretary-designate," intoned an editorial in AIPAC's Near East Report of July 2, 1982, at the time Shultz replaced General Alexander Haig, who was fired by President Reagan because of his unwillingness to stop the disastrous Israeli invasion of Lebanon. The editorial concluded on a thin note of optimism about Shultz that proved remarkably prescient: "Although his long connection with the Bechtel corporation gives rise to concern because of its multi-billion-dollar connection with Saudi Arabia, there is no law, natural or political, that ordains that a public man cannot rise above parochial views dictated by commercial interests and adopt a geostrategic posture that will serve America's best interests."

The newsletter continued its coverage with a July 23, 1982 editorial criticizing Shultz's testimony at his Senate confirmation hearings. "He accorded the PLO an unwarranted legitimacy when he said they could be 'one voice' of the Palestinian people. In no guise can the PLO be viewed as a political force."

It was rumored that George Shultz would have become Secretary of State at the beginning of Ronald Reagan's presidency if Israel's powerful US establishment had not told Reagan, who wanted Caspar Weinberger in his cabinet, that one appointee from Bechtel was enough. Both were considered skeptical of Israeli intentions and of Israel's value to the US. In a Washington Post profile of Shultz on February 4, 1986, Don Oberdorfer recalled that "during the 1980 presidential campaign, Shultz complained to friends that candidate Ronald Reagan, whom Shultz supported generally, was taking an unbalanced, pro-Israeli position on Mideast questions..."

Shultz Evenhanded at First

When Reagan's intention to replace Haig with Shultz became known, journalists attempted to pin down Shultz's Middle East views. Jonathan Fuerbringer wrote in the New York Times of June 26th, 1982, "it appears that many of his attitudes toward the Middle East may have been developed at the Bechtel Group." In a July 8 Times article, Thomas C. Hayes reported that "Mr. Shultz...has publicly questioned the President's pro-Israel stand."

As Shultz went through the confirmation process, the press continued to cautiously take his Mideast pulse. Bernard Gwertzman of the New York Times wrote on July 14, 1982, "without deviating directly from official American policy toward the region, Mr. Shultz went considerably further in expressing sympathy for the Palestinians than any member of the Reagan administration has done publicly."

Reaction to Shultz's first address to the UN General Assembly also offered striking testimony to his initial orientation on the Middle East. The New York Times headlined its October 1, 1982 report, "Israel Must Yield, Shultz Says at UN." Shultz's speech, reported the article by Bernard D. Nossiter, "was praised by Arab delegates as 'evenhanded,' 'encouraging,' and 'hopeful.'" Even Syria's then-Foreign Minister Abdel Halim Khaddam said he was "struck by the frequent references to Palestinian rights."

On September 1, 1982, President Reagan had announced the Shultz-drafted "Reagan Plan" for Middle East peace, based upon UN Security Council Resolution 242's "land for peace" formula, with the resulting Palestinian entity to be in confederation with Jordan. Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin rejected it as a plan for the "dismemberment of Israel." The Arab states, however, called it "not incompatible" with their own Fez conference "principles for peace."

That and Shultz's reference to the Palestinian need for self-determination clearly upset AIPAC. The Near East Report editorialized on Oct. 15 that Shultz's UN speech displayed "evenhandedness with a vengeance...there is a fundamental distinction between the Arab and Israeli cases. With the exception of Egypt, the entire Arab world...denies Israel its right to exist...There is no parallel threat to the Arab world or the Palestinians. The evenhandedness of Secretary Shultz's speech ignores that reality."

A month later, Shultz made headlines on the Middle East again—by criticizing Israel for requiring that foreign teachers in West Bank institutions, including Americans pledge not to support the PLO. By March 1983 the Near East Report was charging ominously: "For the past six months US-Israel relations have suffered from a crisis in communications. The Administration has stopped consulting with Israel—on matters great and small...This is no way to treat an ally, especially when Israel's adversaries (and our own) are treated with what amounts to tender loving care."

Transformation Began in 1983

Analysts differ over precisely when and why Shultz suddenly changed his tune. Using the Near East Report's editorials as a barometer, the transformation had already begun by May 1983, when an editorial praised Shultz for becoming, "in recent weeks...a consistent advocate of US-Israel friendship." When the US embassy in West Beirut had been bombed, with extensive loss of life, in April 1983, Shultz had also become personally involved in negotiating the Lebanese-Israeli withdrawal agreement, which seemed to assume that Syria would pay a political price for a troop withdrawal that Israel was almost desperate to make in order to reduce casualties to its army of occupation in Lebanon.

In December 1983, Shultz chose Tunis, traditionally one of the most pro-US Arab capitals, as the locale for the following announcement: "It is important to say in an Arab capital that the United States has had, does have, and will continue to have a strong relationship with Israel." Soon after, a Near East Report editorial exulted that "1983 has been a good year for Israel and the US-Israel relationship," praising Reagan and Shultz for bolstering "the kind of enhanced relationship with Israel which was only in the dream stage a few short months ago."

Shultz's shift was traced by Ronald Steele, in an extensive New York Times Magazine profile on January 11, 1987, back to the US debacle in Lebanon. Shultz's attempt to serve as broker between Israel and Lebanon, without seriously consulting Syria or Syrian-oriented Lebanese political leaders, ultimately failed ignominiously. The bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut, with 241 US deaths in October 1983—during a period of sparring between the Marines and the Lebanese Druze and Shi'ites—was another pivotal event for Shultz. While Defense Secretary Weinberger was arguing for withdrawal of the Marines, Shultz "wanted to stay and fight," as Steel put it. President Reagan's decision to withdraw the Marines was made while Shultz was out of the country. "His first effort at big-time negotiating had collapsed," Steel wrote. "He soured on the Arabs and turned toward the Israelis."

Many observers cite the emotional impact of the Marine bombing upon Shultz, a former U.S. Marine. Oberdorfer, in the Post, tied the bombing to the Lebanese-Israeli withdrawal agreement's failure. The "bombing destroyed Shultz's efforts to achieve a negotiated withdrawal of Israeli and Syrian forces from Lebanon. And frustration in Lebanon contributed to a reversal of Shultz's original leanings on Middle East issues."

Being Pro-Israel Brings Positive Press Coverage

State Department officials cited by former AIPAC staffer Richard B. Straus in the April 27, 1986Washington Post ascribed Shultz's reversal more broadly to "the Lebanon and Reagan plan debacles," although one official recalled the timing of the shift as later than the Near East Report editorials would suggest. "Somewhere between January and May 1984 Shultz underwent a complete transformation," said the official quoted by Straus.

Another State Department official, who dates the change earlier, pegs it directly to the collapse of the withdrawal agreement—which Syria had repeatedly denounced as a "contract of submission" and which AIPAC still calls a "masterpiece." The official saw Shultz as having a strong personal stake in the agreement. The secretary took the abrogation personally, and lost faith in the Arabs.

Straus' article, however, suggested a more cynical motive. In late 1982 or early 1983, Straus indicated, advisers had told Shultz his overall rapport with the press would improve if he put less emphasis on the Palestinians. Thus his enthusiasm for personally tackling the Lebanese impasse was a way to side-track the Israeli-Palestinian problem which underlies it. In doing what Israel wanted him to do in Lebanon, Shultz correctly anticipated that he would avoid further opposition from Near East Report and the many US journalists it influences.

Whether spurred by one or a complex of causes, Shultz's conversion appears to have been fundamental. Now, instead of being faulted for a balanced approach, Oberdorfer points out, he is "considered the most pro-Israeli figure at the top rank of the Reagan administration." The Arab-Israeli conflict, therefore, has been relegated to the back burner, viewed—if at all—primarily through the lens of terrorism, another Shultz obsession stemming from the Marine bombing.

The rewards for Shultz were made clear at this year's AIPAC conference, when he was asked by the audience whether he had considered running for president. His hesitation, as he modestly replied in the negative, helped explain the curious case of the only secretary of state in US history who came into office understanding the underlying cause of most American Middle East problems, and then spent the balance of his term pretending not to.

Lynn Teo Simarski is a Washington, DC-based free-lance writer specializing in Middle East affairs.