MIDDLE EAST HISTORY: IT HAPPENED IN APRIL; How George Shultz Became the Most Pro-Israel Secretary of State

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MIDDLE EAST HISTORY: IT HAPPENED IN APRIL; How George Shultz Became the Most Pro-Israel Secretary Of State

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.'" Similar 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 noticable by June that New York Times columnist William Satire 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 Committe, 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. …