Mr. Reagan's transition tangles
The appointment of high cabinet officers for the Reagan presidency is running a little behind schedule. We were promised the names of top cabinet officers, or at least some of them, well before this. But as this is being written nothing is yet settled -- not even that George Shultz is notm going to be secretary of state.
If you have been following this story you will remember that at first Mr. Shultz was said to be Mr. Reagan's first choice for the State Department post. Then we were told that he had asked that his name be withdrawn. Then it was learned that the withdrawal was not all that spontaneous, but had been induced by reports from Capitol Hill of objections to Mr. Shultz from some Republican "quarters."
Next the name of Gen. Alexander Haig was tossed out from Reagan "quarters" as being the man most likely to become the senior member of the cabinet. (The secretary of state by tradition and custom sits on the president's right hand at cabinet meetings and is usually the first to speak up when a subject is passed around the table for individual comment.)
But then a question arose as to whether General Haig would get the job after all. This was based on unconfirmed reports that Republican Senate leader Howard Baker has warned the Reagan transition group that there might be trouble about confirmation for General Haig. Added to this was a public statement by Senate Democratic leader Robert Byrd that there would indeed be trouble and that the former deputy to Henry Kissinger might not be confirmed in the Senate.
While both Senator Baker and Senator Byrd are proper partisans they happen also to be personal friends. This affair is the sort of one in which Senator Byrd would give his Republican colleague advance notice of a serious intent among democrats to contest a nomination. Does Mr. Reagan want General Haig so much that he would risk a confirmation fight in which the general's role in the Watergate affair would be dragged out and raked over once more? Probably not.
So then, back to George Shultz who had a distinguished career in government under both Presidents Nixon and Ford and who was not involved as General Haig was with Henry Kissinger who is anathema to Mr. Reagan's right-wing Republican associates from California.
What was the original objection to Mr. Shultz? He is a prominent official of Bechtel Corp. which is a major operator in the oil industry with many connections to the Arab producers of oil. Hence he is suspect to the members of the pro-Israel lobby who are prominent in the Reagan transition team, presumably as a reward for their success in swinging much of the Jewish vote over from the Democratic to the Republican column on the last election day.
The pro-Israel lobby has been distressed by other matters. President-elect Reagan did not receive Israeli Prime Minister Begin when Mr. Begin was last in the US. But he did receive West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt. And since then there has been a real flap over what Sen. Charles Percy of Illinois said to Soviet leaders in Moscow. The Percy talks in Moscow were reported to the State Department in Washington by US ambassador to Moscow, Thomas J. Watson. This report was seen by members of the transition team at the State Department. Someone there "leaked" the report to the New York Times which printed a story about the affair under the headline "Percy Said to Tell Soviets he Favors Palestinian State Headed by Arafat." That was enough to rearouse the pro-Israel lobby which has long felt that Senator Percy was not sufficiently devoted to Israel.
The result of the Percy-Watson affair worried the various Arab missions in Washington who then sought assurance that President Reagan would not abandon the "Camp David process." Under the program set forth in the peace agreement between Egypt and Israel signed at Camp David the next step is to negotiate toward some form of autonomous self-rule for the Arabs of the West Bank and Gaza. Will President Reagan push as hard for progress in that direction as President Carter presumably would, had he been reelected?
Arab anxieties were then allayed by Mr. Reagan's foreign policy adviser Richard Allen who specifically authorized US special negotiator for the Middle East, Sol Linowitz, to advise both the Egyptians and the Israelis that Mr. Reagan intends to proceed within the Camp David framework.
At stake behind all this is the unsettled question of whether Israel will continue indefinitely to control the West Bank and Gaza, or share Palestine with Arabs who would get out from under the present Israeli military occupation and run their own affairs. Emotions are high on all sides. Mr. Reagan is getting a foretaste of how difficult it is to be President of the United States.