Abe Ribicoff is proud. Yes, it was difficult for him to support Jimmy Carter's "package deal" of warplane sales; yes, there were sleepless nghts; yes, the pressure from fellow Jews was intense. But Abraham A. Ribicoff says he believes he made the right choice.
"Let me say this," the Democratic Senator from Connecticut said the other day in his office." There's nothing I have ever done in the Senate that has ever met such an overwhelming approval . . . not only from people who voted on my side but people who voted on the other side.
"I had a lot of senators tell me, 'Abe . . . we're ashamed. We agree with you, and we know what it means for you to do this and the pressure you must have been under, we've been under pressure and we have voted the opposite way. [We're] ashamed that you could take this position and we were unwilling to take it.' It was very interesting to me to get that reaction."
Ribicoff - at 68 one of the great survivors in American public life - was perhaps the single most important senator in the debate over Carter's controversial planes sales. Ribicoff's support for the plan to sell warplanes simultaneously to Israel and two Arab states, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, had enormous symbolic value.
For years one of Israel's staunchest supporters in Washington and one of America's most prominent Jews, Ribicoff decided that organized Jewish opposition to the planes sales was "etnic politics," not befitting a great power with a multitude of interests.
His position infuriated members of the "Israeli lobby" here. One prominent lobbyist for Israeli causes passed along a story that Ribicoff was hoping for an ambassadorship, so he was trying to please the White House. Others spoke more in dismay about Ribicoff's position. One asked how "a good Jew" could favor planes sales to Saudi Arabia.
A colleague who has watched Ribicoff's career for many years remarked on the senator's gift for drawing attention to himself at crucial moments, recalling his impromptu attack on the "Gestapo tactics" of Chicago's police from the podium of the Democratic National Convention in 1968 - while Mayor Richard Daley shouted obscenities from the audience. Even old political enemies in Connecticut, where polls show that senator remains extraordinarily popular, grant Ribicoff's uncanny instinct for political self-promotion.
Ribicoff insists that there are no mysterious or devious explanations for his position on the planes sale. (His aides insist that he is running for reelection in 1980, and not for an ambassadorship.) By his account, he simply studied the facts and came to his conclusion.
In telling the story, Ribicoff indicates that his own involvement in Mideast diplomacy has been greater than generally recognized.
The story begins in November 1976, when Ribicoff made a tour of the Middle East including Israel and Egypt. In Israel which he has visited regularly since its formation 30 years ago he found "great unhappiness" and deep social and economic problems, which he thought stemmed from "the great burden of defense."
The picture in Egypt was remarkably similar, and he found President Anwar Sadat in a new frame of mind. Sadat told Ribicoff virtually what he told the world in his speech to the Israeli Knesset (parliament) a year later. He said he was prepared to recognize the existence of Israel, to accept it, and he "was not afraid to admit that he desperately needed peace."
In early December 1976, President-elect Carter invited Ribicoff to Washington to talk about the Middle East. They met with Walter F. Mondale the vice president-elect, at Blair House. Ribicoff outlined his impressions from his recent trip, and said he saw "a great opportunity here to bring peace, and it was obvious that the only country that could do it was the United States."
He also gave Carter a warning, Ribicoff recalls: "Mr. President, I want you to know that youre going to have a hard time from the Jews, and only a Jew can tell you what I'm going to tell you now . . . You have to understand that after 4,000 years of dispersion of persecution, of death that uppermost in the minds of all Jews is a question of survival . . .
"Every Jew, no matter where he is, has a deep sense of responsibility to his fellow Jews no matter where they are. So consequently this isn't just a rational, intellectual response you're always going to have. This is deeply emotional. . ."
In June 1977, Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance invited Ribicott to join him at the ministerial meetings of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in Paris. Ribicoff sat in on all of Vance's bilateral meetings with the foreign ministers of other industrialized countries, and was struck, he says, by the way all of them asked Vance about peace prospects in the Middle East.
The last of those meetings was with the Japanese foreign minister, and when he asked about the Middle East, Vance suggested Ribicoff try to answer the question.
He was so struck by the way every foreign minister had asked the same question, Ribicoff recalls, that he answered with a question of his own: Why had the Japanese foreign minister raised the issue? Ribicoff recounted his answer:
"Well, 95 percent of our energy depends on oil. Seventy percent of our oil comes from the Middle East. If that supply of oil was disrupted it would mean the disintegration of Japan economically, politically and socially . . ."
In late 1977 Sadat went to Jerusalem, and in January of this year Ribicoff led a delegation of senators to Saudi Arabia. "I'd always been reluctant to go to Saudi Arabia," the senator says. He remembered the Saudis' hard line, and their role in the 1973 oil embargo. "But I said to myself, well, there's a powerful country, I ought to go."
Ribicoff describes this as a revelatory trip. He found American-trained Saudi ministers anxious to maintain their American connection, and already deeply committed to the United States financially. His entire image of Saudi Arabia changed.
On the same trip Ribicoff visited Syria - "a shocker," in the senator's view. "It was one of the most uncomfortable places I'd ever been."
The Syrians wanted only to lambast Sadat and his peace gestures, and Ribicoff found himself constantly trying to defend the Egyptian leader. The Syrians were livid, he says, but they held out hope: Israeli intransigence, they predicted, would make Sadat's initiative fail.
This was the background to Ribicoff's change of heart about American interests in the Middle East, he says. Menachem Begin was also a factor. Ribicoff opposed Begin's policy on Israeli settlements in the disputed West Bank territory, and flatly rejected Begin's interpretation of U.N. Security Council Resolution 242, calling for Israeli withdrawal from occupied territories - only some occupied territories, in Begin's view.
This winter and spring Ribicoff worked his way through to a new position with his foreign policy aide, Arthur House. "It was a helluva lot of pressure on me. Lifelong friends . . . very critical of me."
"There are very few issues that are presented to you where you have to break with an entire establishment, because it's all going the other way and has solidified the other way." That is how Ribicoff felt about the organized Jewish community.
Ribicoff would not say so, but he has a special advantage when he contemplates going against that or almost any other establishment. Connecticut may never have produced a more popular politician, and his Senate seat is as safe as any Deep South Democrat's was a generation ago. A recent poll showed he had a 69 percent favorable rating among his constituents.
Ribicoff signaled his new position in March, in an interview with The Wall Street Journal. He criticized "self-appointed spokesmen who try to give the impression they speak for the Jews," and mentioned specifically the aggressive lobbying of the American Isreal Public Affairs Committee: "They do a great disservice to the U.S., to Israel and to the Jewish community," Ribicoff said.
There was a special irony in that remark. AIPAC is run by Morris Amitay, a former Foreign Service officer who worked as a staff aide for Ribicoff for five years. They have now split sharply on policy issues. Amitay was described by friends as deeply angered at Ribicoff's position on the planes sales.
On the Senate floor last Monday, Ribicoff delivered a carefully written speech on what he called the "new realities": Saudi oil and dollar wealth, the need for peace, the need to support moderate Arabs.
Then in a secret session called at his urging, Ribicoff delivered an alarming (some colleagues called it alarmist) speech on the spread of communist influence in the areas surrounding Saudi Arabia. He used a map on which Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and other radical states were painted bright red.
[Ribicoff went on to warn that loss of the Saudi oilfields by the West "would trigger a great depression and would probably be a cause of war," according to an Associated Press report based on a censored transcript of the debate released Friday.]
["Let the Soviets control that oil - and they are a good way to surrounding it at the present time - and where will the United States be? Where will Western Europe be? Where will Japan be?" Ribicoff asked.]
At the end of the day Ribicoff joined 53 other senators in support of the arms sales. Fervent opponents of the sales said his vote allowed perhaps half a dozen other senators to go the same way (on the theory that no one could accuse a senator of betraying Israel if he voted with Ribicoff).
That night, after the vote, the Ribicoffs planned to go to W. Averell Harriman's home for a dinner party, but they canceled at the last minute. "I was so emotionally drained that I wouldn't be fit to go, I just couldn't see anybody," said the former police judge, congressman, governor and secretary of health, education and welfare.