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Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, April 1998, Page 78-79

Middle East History: It Happened in April

How George Shultz Became the Most Pro-Israel Secretary Of State

By Donald Neff

It was 15 years ago, on April 14, 1983, that a chorus of criticism of Secretary of State George Pratt Shultz reached a crescendo in The Washington Post. The newspaper wrote that “there is a growing body of thought that Shultz may be too quiet, that he may not be forceful enough.”1Similar comments had appeared in The New York Times, Time, Newsweek and by columnists Rowland Evans and Robert Novak, to name only some of the major critics.

The criticism had gathered speed after an interview in The New York Times on Feb. 19 by Moshe Arens, Israel’s new defense minister. He complained there was “such a degree of frustration and impatience and anger” that relations between the United States and Israel were perhaps the worst in history.2

All this preceded an astonishing change in Shultz. Within months he became a passionate supporter of Israel and spent much of the rest of his time in office promoting Israel’s interests and forging a relationship that turned the United States into the tiny Jewish state’s closest friend at all levels of government.

The change was so noticeable by June that New York Times columnist William Safire was writing, “the Reagan administration has suddenly fallen passionately in love with Israel.”3

After that most of the media criticism of Shultz not only ceased but his praise as a supporter of Israel grew proportionately.4 Sources in Washington explained that two of Shultz’s closest colleagues, his executive secretary, Charles M. Hill, and Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Lawrence S. Eagleburger, later secretary of state in the last days of the Bush administration, suggested to Shultz in the spring of 1983 that he try treating Israel more circumspectly to see if the media criticism would wane.5

Whatever the facts, the record clearly shows that from this time forward there was a sea change in Shultz’s attitude toward Israel. He never again seriously opposed Israel, or treated the Palestinians with anything more than contempt. By 1985 Shultz was openly proclaiming his Zionist credentials. At the annual conference of AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, he declared: “Our original moral commitment to Israel has never wavered, but over the years Americans have also come to recognize the enormous importance of Israel—as a partner in the pursuit of freedom and democracy, as a people who share our highest ideals, and as a vital strategic ally in an important part of the world.... Every year we provide more security assistance to Israel than to any other nation. We consider that aid to be one of the best investments we can make—not only for Israel’s security but for ours as well.”6

The next month in Israel, Shultz declared that “Israel is the true witness to the Holocaust and the truest symbol of the victory of good over evil. Never again. Never again would we fail to confront evil. Never again would we appease the aggressor. Never again would we let the Jewish people stand alone against persecution and oppression. Today, we honor that pledge by standing beside the state of Israel.”7

Shultz had been appointed by President Reagan on June 25, 1982.8 Born Dec. 13, 1920, Shultz had been an economics professor at MIT and the University of Chicago before President Nixon appointed him to his cabinet as secretary of labor, then director of the office of management and budget, and finally as secretary of the treasury, in which job he had completely failed to see the disastrous 1973 Arab oil boycott coming.

He left the government in 1974 to join the huge international construction company Bechtel Group Inc. and soon became president of Bechtel. His work at Bechtel brought him into close contact with many Arab leaders and when he returned to government it was believed that he would be more evenhanded in the Middle East than some of his predecessors.9

In fact, he became the most pro-Israel secretary ever except for Henry Kissinger. Shultz got off on the wrong foot with Israel when, after less than a month in office, he signed off on a presidential warning to Israel on July 15 accusing it of violating the Arms Export Control Act because of its use of U.S. weapons in its invasion of Lebanon. He further provoked Israel in September when he put forward the comprehensive peace plan that subsequently became known as “the Reagan plan.” Israel disdainfully rejected it out of hand the next day.

All that had changed by the middle of 1983. How profound the change was became clear within five months, when Shultz backed the signing of a strategic alliance agreement with Israel, in effect elevating Israel to the status of a strategic ally of America.10 By mid-1984, Moshe Arens was describing relations between the two countries as “probably better” than ever before.11That description continued to be made throughout Shultz’s time in office.

Perhaps more telling were the heaps of praise bestowed on Shultz and Reagan by AIPAC. In 1986, AIPAC executive director Thomas Dine reported at the group’s 27th annual policy conference that relations had never been better between the United States and Israel.12 Dine said that in the process of this development “a whole new constituency of support for Israel is being built in precisely the area where we are weakest—among government officials in the state, defense and treasury departments, in the CIA, in science, trade, agriculture and other agencies.” Israel, Dine added, was now treated by the United States as an “ally, not just a friend, an asset rather than a liability, a mature and capable partner, not some vassal state.”

He added that President Reagan and Shultz were going to “leave a legacy that will be important to Israel’s security for decades to come.” Shultz, he said, had vowed to him to “build institutional arrangements so that eight years from now, if there is a secretary of state who is not positive about Israel, he will not be able to overcome the bureaucratic relationship between Israel and the U.S. that we have established.”

Later in 1986, former AIPAC staffer Richard B. Straus wrote in The Washington Post that “American Middle East policy has shifted so dramatically in favor of Israel” that now it could only be described as “a revolution.” He quoted Dine as saying that Shultz was the “architect of the special relationship,” which, Dine said, “is a deep, broad-based partnership progressing day-by-day toward a full-fledged diplomatic and military alliance.”

Straus added: “State Department Arabists acknowledge that Arab interests hardly get a hearing today in Washington. ”˜We used to have a two-track policy,’ says one former State Department official. ”˜Now only Israel’s interests are considered.’” While Straus credited Reagan’s “gut” support for Israel as a major reason for the change, it was, Straus observed, only after George Shultz finally decided to throw his full weight behind Israel that the “revolution was complete.”13

By the next year, 1987, Dine declared Reagan and Shultz among Israel’s greatest friends who had immeasurably helped Israel.14

In his address, Dine declared that “there is wide agreement that Ronald Reagan is among the best friends of Israel ever to sit in the Oval Office, and that George Shultz has been a friend beyond words as secretary of state....These stalwarts have truly transformed U.S. policy over the past five years, raising the relationship to a new level.”15

Dine said that despite a year in which there was the Pollard spy scandal, Israel’s entanglement in the Iran/Contra scandal, Israel’s selling of weapons to South Africa, speculation about Israel’s nuclear policy and leadership confusion in Israel, “We have had one of the best years on record in terms of concrete legislation, in the strategic relationship between our country and Israel, and in the gains scored by our cause in the results of the 1986 elections.”16

The New York Times reported in July that “AIPAC has become a major force in shaping United States policy in the Middle East....the organization has gained power to influence a presidential candidate’s choice of staff, to block practically any arms sale to an Arab country and to serve as a catalyst for intimate military relations between the Pentagon and the Israeli army. Its leading officials are consulted by State Department and White House policymakers, by senators and generals.” It concluded that AIPAC “has become the envy of competing lobbyists and the bane of Middle East specialists who would like to strengthen ties with pro-Western Arabs.”17

AIPAC’s rise was accomplished in part by Shultz’s willingness to support it by speaking at its annual meeting and, more significantly, consulting it on policy matters. Former CIA analyst Kathleen Christison observed: “...the Reagan years have witnessed a marked change in the lobby’s influence on policymaking. If in past administrations it was thought to have a major limiting impact on policy formulation, the magnitude of its influence today is so great that it can no longer be considered merely a constraint on policy. Under Reagan, AIPAC has become a partner in policymaking.” She quoted former Carter administration National Security Council Middle East analyst William Quandt as saying: “We would sometimes go to the Israelis in advance of some action and ask them not to make trouble, but we never went to AIPAC. The Reagan administration has elevated AIPAC to the level of a player in this game.”18

Just how total Shultz had become in his passionate embrace of Israel was demonstrated a few months later. While in Israel in mid-October 1987, Shultz inaugurated the George Shultz Doctoral Fellowships at Tel Aviv University. He personally contributed $10,000 to the program, an extraordinary gesture by a secretary of state claiming to be a mediator in the Arab-Israel conflict.19

Little wonder that Shultz’s reception in Arab countries was no more than diplomatically polite. During nearly seven years in office, his principal influence on the Arab-Israel conflict was to prolong it by his blatant partisanship toward Israel and thereby to contribute to the explosion of Palestinian frustration that erupted as the intifada later in 1987 with untold cost in suffering and blood.

  • Friedman, Thomas L. From Beirut to Jerusalem, New York: Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, 1989.
  • Neff, Donald, Fallen Pillars: U.S. Policy towards Palestine and Israel since 1945, Washington, DC: Institute for Palestine Studies, 1995.
  • Schiff, Zeev, and Ehud Ya’ari. Israel’s Lebanon War, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1984.


1Michael Getler, Washington Post, 4/24/83.

2Bernard Gwertzman, New York Times, 2/20/83.

3William Safire, New York Times, 6/16/83.

4Donald Neff, “The remarkable feat of George Shultz,” Middle East International 3/5/88. For a description of Shultz’s meek style henceforth in dealing with the Israelis, see Friedman, From Beirut to Jerusalem, pp. 500-01.

5Neff, Fallen Pillars, pp. 121-24.

6The text is in Journal of Palestine Studies, “Special Document,” Summer 1985, pp. 122-28.

7Bernard Gwertzman, New York Times, 5/11/185; excerpts of his remarks in same edition.

8Excerpts of Shultz’s testimony in his confirmation hearings on 7/13/82 in Journal of Palestine Studies, “Documents and Source Material,” Summer/Fall 1982, pp. 333-35.

9Time, 7/5/82, pp.15-16.

10Donald Neff, “The remarkable feat of George Shultz,” Middle East International, 3/5/88; Friedman, From Beirut to Jerusalem, pp. 500-01.

11New York Times, 5/31/84.

12The text of Dine’s speech, “The Revolution in U.S.-Israel Relations,” is in Journal of Palestine Studies, “Special Document,” Summer 1986, p. 134-143.

13Richard B. Straus, Washington Post, April 27, 1986.

14Middle East Policy and Research Center, May/June 1987, 5/6-IV-3-Pages 16/17; also see a special report on the meeting in the Journal of Palestine Studies, Autumn 1987, pp. 107-13.

15The text of Dine’s speech is in the Journal of Palestine Studies, Vol. XVI, No. 4, Summer 1987, pp. 95-106; the same issue also carries the text of AIPAC’s 1987 policy statement, pp. 107-114.

16Middle East Policy and Research Center, May/June 1987, 5/6-IV-3-page 12.

17David K. Shipler, New York Times, 7/6/87.

18Kathleen Christison, “Blind Spots: Official U.S. Myths About the Middle East,” Journal of Palestine Studies, Vol. XVII, No. 2, Winter 1988, p. 50.

19Glenn Frankel, Washington Post, 10/19/87.

Donald Neff is author of Fallen Pillars: U.S. Policy Towards Palestine and Israel since 1945. It, along with his Warriors trilogy on U.S.-Mideast relations, is available through the AET Book Club.