WHEN George P. Shultz became secretary of state in 1982 there was a lot of speculation that he was a better friend of the Arabs than the Israelis. Bechtel, the big international engineering company he had headed, had been involved in major construction projects in the Middle East, particularly in Saudi Arabia.
In addition, Mr. Shultz was known to be impressed by the intelligence and talents of Palestinians working as professionals throughout the Middle East. He was moved by the plight of Palestinians displaced from their homeland, and sympathetic to the idea of bettering their lives, and creating some kind of national identity for them. Against this background there were concerns, particularly in Israel, that Mr. Shultz might abandon the declared US policy of even-handedness in the Middle East; that the policy might get skewed against Israel, and in favor of the Arabs.
There need have been no Israeli concern. As it has turned out, Mr. Shultz has been a sturdy friend of Israel, reflecting the mood of an administration that has generally treated Israel as a particularly favored ally. As an economist, Mr. Shultz has had some sharp words to offer about past mishandling of the Israeli economy, but generally he has been supportive of a string of pro-Israeli initiatives.
Did Mr. Shultz shift his stand from a pro-Arab to a pro-Israeli position? Administration officials would deny that, and argue that the Reagan administration is still pursuing an even-handed course between Arabs and Israelis.
However, the Arabs have handed the administration a few disappointments, particularly in the wake of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon when Mr. Shultz worked so hard to get Israelis and Syrians to vacate Lebanese territory. The implicit deal was that if the United States could mastermind an Israeli withdrawal, the Arabs would take care of Syria. Mr. Shultz did, after much anguished negotiation, orchestrate an Israeli plan for withdrawal. But the Arabs never came through on Syria.
Besides emotional and political American ties to Israel, the Reagan administration sees Israel as an admirable bastion of democracy, and an extremely important strategic asset in a region of great volatility.
Congress has hitherto been even more favorably inclined to Israel, pressing funds on Israel beyond what the administration has sought or thinks is ideal.
But despite strong bonds, allies can be prickly to deal with and the Reagan administration's relations with Israel are currently at a low point.
Just what the Israeli role was in leading the administration into its disastrous Iranian arms-for-hostages initiative is not yet entirely clear.
We do know that even as good a friend of Israel's as George Shultz warned that the Israeli agenda was not necessarily in the best interest of the US.
But what has really caused deep trouble is the Pollard spy case and the Israeli government's handling of its consequences. That Israel should spy on the United States is bad enough. But it has dissembled in its explanations, and promoted some of those involved. One, Col. Aviem Sella, has just resigned his command of the Tel Nof air base - a promotion that outraged the US. Another, former intelligence chieftain Rafi Eitan, as of this writing remains rewarded and unpunished.
American Jewish leaders have sharply criticized Israel's handling of the Pollard affair, but other than the Sella resignation there seems little Israeli governmental inclination to redress a bad mistake.
One of the ties that bind Israel and the US is the common belief in democracy.
Israel's adherence to democracy has brought many benefits from the US.
Democracy also has its costs. One of them should be as candid an Israeli investigation and admission of guilt in the Pollard case as is going on in the United States over Irangate.