Shultz to the Middle East

SECRETARY OF STATE George Shultz's planned detour to the Middle East on his way to Moscow this month is welcome and long overdue. By talking with leaders of Israel (where he will receive two honorary degrees), Egypt, and Jordan, he hopes to give the stalled peace process a jump start.

The United States has long been cautiously supportive of the international conference approach endorsed by the region's Arab nations and Israel's Labor Party. The Shultz visit offers a new opportunity to urge a conference more aggressively - despite Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir's insistence that his opposition to a conference remains firm.

The American Jewish Congress's recent unexpected endorsement of a peace conference - on grounds that Israel will lose its Jewish identity if it clings to governing the predominantly Arab West Bank and Gaza Strip - is a welcome move that should strengthen the US hand. Some yielding of captured land is essential if peace in the region is ever to be achieved.

A more evenhanded US stance is also needed in arms help for the Middle East. The US remains unfailingly generous in dispensing military aid to Israel, paying off even canceled-contract penalties on the abandoned Lavi combat fighter project. Yet Congress has been unjustifiably tightfisted, hewing closely to exaggerated warnings of danger from the Israeli lobby, in responding to a relatively modest request from Saudi Arabia to buy arms.

The position of the 64 US senators who wrote President Reagan last week to spell out their vigorous opposition to the proposed $1.4 billion sale to the Saudis of F-15 fighters and Maverick missiles is shortsighted; the resistance on the Hill probably more accurately reflects a political view than any realistic assessment of the military threat posed to Israel. The State Department insists the military balance in the Middle East would not be adversely affected by the sale; some top Israeli officials readily agree. The conservative Saudis have been providing important help to the US in the Persian Gulf, including radar surveillance, and face tough new threats from Iran.

Fortunately the State Department, at least for the moment, is ready to press on with the fight. But a much stronger message from the White House, detailing precisely why the Saudi sale bolsters US national-security interests, is in order. Many in Congress would quietly welcome such leadership as an alternative to the strong pressure for the more one-sided policy they feel now prevails.

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