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Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, January 1989, Page 12


Ambassador Robert H. Pelletreau, Jr.

By Andrew I. Killgore

Robert H. Pelletreau of Patchogue, NY, was already highly regarded in diplomatic and Middle Eastern circles when, on Dec. 14, Secretary of State George Shultz named him the sole authorized contact between the United States and the Palestine Liberation Organization. In the following days, the face of the American ambassador to Tunisia became a familiar one on newspaper pages and television screens around the world as he and US Embassy Political Officer Edward Hull met with PLO officials in Tunis to end 13 years of diplomatic isolation between the PLO and the US.

Much of the drama of this first contact resulted from its suddenness. On Dec. 13 the US State Department had said Yasser Arafat's UN General Assembly speech at Geneva did not meet American requirements for a dialogue. On the evening of Dec. 14, Secretary Shultz said a reformulation offered by Arafat at a Geneva press conference was satisfactory. Two days later Ambassador Pelletreau was meeting with PLO officials on neutral ground—a Tunisian government guest house.

It was a happy coincidence that such a seasoned diplomat was at the helm of the US Embassy in Tunis, which has served as the principal PLO headquarters ever since PLO officials were evacuated there, under US protection, from West Beirut during the Israeli siege of 1982.

Pelletreau is eminently qualified, by experience, education, and temperament, to represent the United States in the most sensitive of foreign policy questions.

He graduated from Yale University in 1957, served in the naval reserve from 1957 to 1958, and then entered Harvard Law School from which he graduated in 1961. After practicing law in New York City for a year, Pelletreau entered the Foreign Service in 1962. His assignments since then reveal a man in a hurry. He served in Mauritania, Morocco, Lebanon, Jordan, Algeria, and Syria before becoming US ambassador in Bahrain. He is fluent in both Arabic and French. In all of the countries listed, one or both are essential.

Headed Washington's Arabian Pennisula Office

In Washington, Pelletreau headed the State Department's Arabian Peninsula office from 1981 to 1983 and from 1983 to 1985 served as a deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern and South Asian affairs, working then as now to create conditions that could lead to Arab-Israeli negotiations.

On assignment to the Pentagon he served twice, from 1980 to 1981 and from 1985 to 1987, as deputy assistant secretary of defense for Near Eastern and South Asian affairs. Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger so valued Pelletreau's diplomatic skills and intimate knowledge of the area that he took Pelletreau with him on most of the defense secretary's Middle Eastern trips.

Pelletreau was assigned as ambassador to Tunisia, then in a particularly delicate political situation, a year and a half ago. He is keenly attuned to every nuance and sensitivity of the Arab-Israeli issue. His quiet friendliness and personal warmth, leavened with quick humor, quickly put Americans and Arabs alike at ease. Some journalists have described the ambassador as a cautious professional. This is true, but within the Foreign Service he is not so cautious that he will fail to present forcefully to his superiors the balanced judgments of a fine intellect.

Arab-Israeli relations are a dangerous mine field where one misstep can stunt a career. It is an area where the categorical imperatives of domestic American politics and the urgent needs of US international diplomacy always intermingle, and often clash. The fact that Pelletreau's Foreign Service colleagues are highly pleased that he has been entrusted with his current delicate task demonstrates more than their confidence in his professional competence and their affection for him as a person. To them it indicates that the dialogue has been given a top political priority, and Pelletreau's selection indicates it is meant to succeed.

Previous Involvement in Delicate Negotiations

It is not the first time Robert Pelletreau has been involved in tense and delicate negotiations under worldwide media scrutiny. In June 1985 he was co-chairman of a US government task force charged with gathering information during the hijacking of a TWA aircraft by Lebanese Shi'ite militants. The ordeal ended in Beirut after 17 days of intensive negotiations by American diplomats involving Syria, Iran, Algeria, and Israel. It revealed the extensive involvement of the Khomeini regime in Iran in terrorist actions against American citizens in Beirut.

Fifteen years earlier, in 1970, Pelletreau had briefly been a hostage himself. During bloody "Black September" fighting between the Jordanian army and heavily armed Palestinian groups, Pelletreau, then serving in the US Embassy in Amman, was seized by members of a radical Marxist group and brought, with other hostages, to a hotel lobby for a crowded press conference. Seeing that his captors were momentarily distracted, Pelletreau edged into the crowd of reporters and photographers and calmly walked out the front door to freedom.

Even before the US-PLO dialogue catapulted him into the spotlight, Pelletreau had figured in the news. His name is reported to be on the "short list" to succeed Richard Murphy as Assistant Secretary of State

At 53 years of age, Bob Pelletreau is not the only distinguished member of the family. His wife, Pamela Day Pelletreau, holds a Ph.D. in political science from George Washington University in Washington, DC. She works as a visiting research scholar at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, also in Washington, DC. On the side she also does some consulting, which helps with school expenses for the couple's three daughters. They are Katherine, age 21, at Hampshire College in Massachusetts; Erica, age 19, at Louis and Clark College in Oregon; and Elizabeth Anne, age 15, at Phillips Academy, also in Massachusetts.

The Pelletreaus might be called a metaphor for the new US Foreign Service. Although both are highly educated professionals, it's not easy to pursue two separate careers overseas. The answer, for Pamela Pelletreau, was to raise a family and then return to work when all of the children were launched in school. She describes her situation as a "renewal of career." Dividing her time at present between Tunis and Washington obviously is trying, but neither Pelletreau is complaining. They both find their way of life fulfilling.

Even before the US-PLO dialogue catapulted him into the spotlight, Robert Pelletreau had figured recently in the news. His name is reported to be high on the "short list" to succeed Richard Murphy as assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern and South Asian affairs under the incoming Bush administration.

Whether he remains in Tunisia or returns to Washington, it is likely that he will figure prominently in any Bush administration Middle East peace initiative. What is certain is that, however it works out, there will be no complaints from members of the Pelletreau family. They share the old-fashioned idea that it is an honor to serve the US government, and they serve it very well.

Andrew I. Killgore, a former US ambassador to Qatar, is publisher of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.