In a confusing about-face, Republican U.S. Senate nominee Ed Zschau now says he would be inclined to vote against future arms sales to Saudi Arabia.
Zschau's position, stated Friday in a telephone interview, follows a week of press conferences and interviews in which Zschau indicated to some Jewish supporters that he would oppose future arms sales to the Saudis but said to reporters that he would not necessarily oppose such sales.
His handling of the matter plays right into the hands of his opponent, Democratic Sen. Alan Cranston, who has been charging in press conferences and television commercials that it is impossible to know where Zschau stands because of his inconsistent votes on some issues.
"I congratulate him on a wise flip-flop," Cranston said Friday when told that Zschau now opposes arms sales to the Saudis. Cranston has led the opposition in the Senate to selling arms to Saudi Arabia and Jordan.
"The important thing about this issue," Cranston charged, "is what it reveals about Mr. Zschau's inexperience and uncertainty."
Zschau returned last week from a trip to Israel that he took after Cranston raised questions about his support for Israel based on several House votes, including a May vote in favor of selling defensive weapons to Saudi Arabia.
The confusion over what Zschau would do in the future began when several Jewish leaders who met with Zschau upon his return told the San Jose Mercury-News that the congressman had indicated to them that he would vote differently in the future.
That conflicted with what he said Monday at a press conference in Los Angeles, his first since his return from Israel.
At that press conference Zschau was asked: "Will you continue to support the sale of non-offensive weapons to Saudi Arabia?"
He declined to say what he would do beyond opposing the sale of AWACs aircraft to Arab countries, which he said he is against because the plane's reconnaissance capability makes it a threat to Israel.
Pushed again to say how he will vote on Saudi arms sales in the future, Zschau chose to defend his May vote, saying: "Once I've made a vote, that vote stands. I take full responsibility for it."
The matter came up again in an Orange Country press conference Wednesday when Zschau was asked whether he had told the Jewish leaders he will oppose future arms sales to the Saudis.
Zschau replied that he was sorry "if there was some misunderstanding," adding: "I didn't change my mind. People can hypothesize about motivation, but it is important to understand the criteria I laid down" for the May vote to sell arms to the Saudis.
He said those criteria were: "Does this threaten the security of Israel, and is it important to the President's credibility in the Middle East process (to sell the weapons.)"
Zschau said he had voted for the sale in May because he was convinced that the weapons did not threaten Israel and that it was important for President Reagan to be able to deliver on a promise to provide the arms if he is to encourage the Saudis to actively participate in negotiations with Israel.
Cites 'New Insight'
Asked in Orange County whether he would vote for such an arms sale again if it met those criteria, Zschau said, "Yes."
But by Friday he said he had concluded that such arms sales are not a good idea even if they meet those criteria.
"Having new insight about what it will take to bring peace to the region," Zschau said, "I have concluded that carrots or incentives for the Saudis to bring them to the negotiating table, which is one of the justifications for making these arms sales, are not effective and that the approach we should be taking is to create this environment for peace in which coming to the table will be seen in and of itself as in the best interest of the Saudis.
"What I am saying is that I am inclined to vote against such sales in the future, and what I think I said in the meeting with the Jewish leaders is that I would probably vote against such sales in the future because I don't see them as being productive."
Why didn't Zschau simply say that when he returned from Israel?
Because Cranston has been hammering Zschau for voting on both sides of several issues, according to Zschau campaign manager Ron Smith.
"Yes, he was afraid it would look like that," Smith said in an interview.
"All Ed is trying to say," Smith continued, "is that he can't take back his vote for the arms sale. But in his trip to Israel the one nuance he found was that it should not be a U.S. priority to provide carrots to the other Middle Eastern countries to get them back to the negotiating table."
Ironically, Zschau's latest television commercial begins like this: "In the race for the U.S. Senate, Alan Cranston has chosen to use gimmicks to avoid discussing the issues. Ed Zschau lets you know exactly where he stands."