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U.S. Middle East Policy Revolves Around Israel

September 21, 1986|Richard B. Straus | Richard B. Straus, a Washington-based journalist is editor of the Middle East Policy Survey.

WASHINGTON — Last week the Administration rolled out the red carpet for an Israeli prime minister whose term of office ends in less than a month and who had nothing extraordinary to say. But then Shimon Peres, on his last scheduled visit to Washington before turning over the reins of government to Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir, is no ordinary Israeli. Long considered devious, even unctuous--some call him the Richard M. Nixon of Israeli politics--Peres, during his 2 1/2-year tenure as leader of a fragile coalition government, transformed himself into the most popular and respected politician at home, and in the process became the Administration's favorite Israeli.

For Israelis at odds over the Lebanon involvement, Peres, in relatively short order, engineered a near total pullout. At the same time, he presided over a dramatic turnabout in Israel's battered economy, taming the rampant inflation that was threatening to unravel Israeli society. If these efforts were not enough, Peres strove to breathe new life into the moribund peace process with the Arabs.

Washington serially applauded, supported and was abashed by Peres' efforts. The Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon helped the Reagan Administration end an untidy and unpleasant chapter in its own Middle East policy. The rescue of the Israeli economy was immeasurably assisted by emergency U.S. funding and overseen by Secretary of State George P. Shultz whose economic background and personal commitment to Peres made him, in effect, the project manager for Israel's economy.

The peace process did not, however, evoke the same enthusiasm or interest in Shultz or other senior level U.S. officials. Peres was consistently ahead of the Administration in promoting new ideas to encourage peace talks. Prodded by young, somewhat dovish advisers, Peres' most recent efforts have centered on convening an international conference that would bring the Soviet Union back into the Middle East--a prospect greeted with something less than enthusiasm by the Reagan Administration.

It is ironic that Shultz, whose appointment in 1980 was reportedly derailed because of his perceived pro-Arab bias, should turn out to be less interested in pursuing peace talks than the Israeli prime minister. But it must be remembered that when Shultz did get the call to replace Alexander M. Haig Jr. in 1982, he charged headlong into the Arab-Israeli thicket only to become frustrated and then humiliated by the Arabs, notably the Syrians.

As a result, Shultz became reticent to say the least. Despite prompting from both Arabs and Israelis, Shultz has neatly avoided personal involvement. He has visited the Middle East only once since 1983. Instead, he has relied on the services of lower level State Department officials, including his chief Middle East expert, Assistant Secretary Richard W. Murphy.

Murphy's role highlights another irony in the Administration's Middle East doings. Fluent in Arabic, Murphy, a former ambassador to Syria and Saudi Arabia, is the first person with such credentials to hold the State Department's key Middle East slot in a generation. Yet it has been Murphy's duty to deliver bad news to the Arabs (no high level U.S. role, no sophisticated weapons) and good news to the Israelis (more money, more cooperation in defense matters). "I think Dick knows he is being used," says one colleague. "He is sent out to Arab capitals because he can show enthusiasm." Another State Department insider says, "The secretary keeps Murphy on a short leash. He has a mandate to pursue the peace process, but not to change U.S. policy until the Arabs agree to direct talks with Israel."

Murphy and his fellow Arabists--analysts who forcefully present the Arab side of issues at the State Department--have been further hamstrung by the increasingly pro-Israeli orientation of Congress and the White House. Pro-Israeli activists are convinced that the 100th Congress will be the most pro-Israeli ever. Estimates based on voting records as well as private and public comments of the candidates lead them to conclude Israel will gain four to six new adherents in the Senate regardless of the party in control.

While unabashedly pro-Israel sentiment isn't new to the Congress, it is somewhat more unusual in the White House, especially on the National Security Council. As recently as last year, the chief Middle East expert at the NSC, James Covey, was the State Department foreign service officer on assignment. An Arabist, he was a protege of Murphy. But Adm. John M. Poindexter, in one of his first moves as national security adviser last December, was to remove Covey and replace him with Dennis Ross, whose views were more in concert with prevailing Administration attitudes of complete support for Israel.

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