If anyone thought George Shultz's connections with the Bechtel Corporation would make him hesitant to speak out - for fear of appearing pro-Arab - he now knows otherwise. The secretary of state-designate has delivered a calm but clarion call for resolving the Palestinian problem with all due urgency and in all its dimensions. This is the strongest expression of sympathy to date in the Reagan administration for the plight of the Palestinians, and is to be quietly cheered. There is little likelihood his comments would have been made without the President's approval, and this is all the more reason to hope now for the injection of fresh clarity and purpose in US foreign policy in the Middle East.
Quickly, Mr. Shultz has demonstrated his forthrightness, cool, and diplomatic agility. In hours of testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Mr. Shultz was careful to reiterate continuing US friendship for Israel and commitment to its security. Indeed his comments seemed to convey a heartfelt understanding of Israel's longing for peace and its anguish in the face of decades of unrelenting Arab hostility.
But he did not spare Israel the public rod of criticism for its policies in Lebanon and the West Bank any more than he spared the Palestine Liberation Organization criticism of its terrorist activities and of its intransigent refusal to recognize the right of Israel to exist. The American people cannot but be reassured by this early sign that Mr. Shultz intends to pursue a diplomacy that is balanced, fair-minded, and serving above all the interests of peace.
No one would underestimate the difficulties before him. Mr. Shultz enters the picture at a time of bewildering change in the region. There is, for one thing, the reassertion of Iran's power as reflected in the aggressive military lunge into Iraq - a move which is presumably aimed at altering the government in Baghdad and which is bound to have an impact on Saudi Arabia, hitherto preeminent in the area. There is also the reemergence of Egypt as a dominant player and rival of Iran, with all the implications this has for a new alignment of forces. Then there is the chaos in Lebanon, which threatens to take an increasingly high human toll unless Israel is persuaded to withdraw and the PLO is persuaded to give up its guerrilla tactics and embrace a political instead of military solution to attaining its objectives. Against the backdrop of all this is also the sobering fact that the two superpowers seem almost irrelevant in influencing the course of events.
How Mr. Shultz will thread his way through this maze of problems, and how he will try to bring US power to bear on them, remains to be seen. The question is not merely what Mr. Shultz himself thinks or does not think but whether he has the capacity to persuade President Reagan and Cabinet and White House aides of the wisdom of certain policies. He has the reputation of being a soft-spoken but tough conciliator, and certainly his deft performance in the Senate bears this out. That he appears not to have to cope with his own ego and political ambition should at least help eliminate the tiresome and tiring bureaucratic battles which have beset Reagan foreign policy up to now.
For the moment, the world can be encouraged that Mr. Shultz has unself-consciously gone straight to the core of a fundamental problem in the Middle East: the failure to satisfy the Palestinian people's aspirations for and rights to self-determination. If the President's policies now evolve to match the eloquent reasonableness of Mr. Shultz's words, there is renewed possibility that constant warfare between Arab and Jew will finally be supplanted by a durable peace.