Robert S. Strauss took charge of President Carter's flagging Middle East peace initiative today, expressing his determination to carve out a role for himself as the broker of political deals that could lead to a broad Arab-Israeli peace settlement.
Shortly before arriving in Israel at the start of a seven-day trip that will help shape an administration decision on how fast and how far to push on the issue of Palestinian self-rule, Strauss told reporters that he expected to generate "a bit of a flap" in his first active days as Carter's special ambassador-at-large to the Middle East.
He intends to seek out and talk to local Palestinians on the occupied West Bank, which Strauss will visit in an Israeli military helicopter. He expects the symbolism of both acts to stir the kind of political controversy that would convince both sides he is serious about "taking scars" and promoting a settlement.
Strauss is to sit in this week on the fourth round of talks between Israel and Egypt that have stalled over an agenda for the year-long negotiations to establish self-governing Palestinian authorities on the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip as promised in the Camp David peace agreements.
Strauss made clear to reporters traveling with him in a U.S. Air Force jet from Washington that he would not invest much time or effort on the detailed negotiating sessions, where Egypt has called on the United States to be "a full partner." He will instead broker the political authority derived directly from his relationship with Carter.
Comparing his new role to his highly successful negotiating efforts as Carter's special representative on trade, Strauss noted that he spent little time "at the negotiating table in Geneva, but was instead traveling to Paris, London, Tokyo" and elsewhere to see political leaders who could sanction the larger tradeoffs sought by Strauss.
Strauss' rapid and highly visible start this week is calculated in part to place distance between himself and the traditional diplomacy employed by the State Department in the region. Strauss has been careful to avoid any public conflict with the State Department, but serious differences on approach and timing on the Palestinian negotiations are apparent.
Strauss has made it known that he will submit his reports directly to Carter and will let State Department aides prepare reports on the negotiations for Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance.
Moreover, he appears to have no intention of confronting the Israelis on the issue of new settlements on the West Bank, an issue that Vance and his top aides apparently feel must be resolved if the U.S. negotiating effort is to retain credibility.
Strauss will meet alone for an hour with Prime Minister Begin and will see Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan and other officials solo for the same amount of time before being joined by the diplomats in his party in Monday meetings.
U.S. Israeli realtions have become more strained in recent weeks as the Israelis have become aware of reports that Carter and Vance were campaigning beyond U.S. borders by pushing West Germany, Italy and perhaps other European Common Market countries to condemn publicly Israel's settlements policy. Strauss reportedly sees reducing these strains as one of his first tasks.
In what some U.S. analysts feel may be an attempt to probe for differences within the administration, the Israelis have been openly criticizing Ambassador James Leonard, seconded by the State Department as Strauss' main negotiating deputy.
In another staffing issue, Strauss passed over an "Arabist" recommended by the Department's Near Eastern Affairs Bureau, reaching into the bureau for a Foreign Service officer with four years' experience in Israel to complete his staff. The officer did serve in Arab countries as well.
Strauss appears to be meeting little resistance to his freewheeling effort now from the Near Eastern Affairs Bureau, which had previously pushed with Vance for quick action on the settlements question and on defining the American attitude toward the autonomy talks at the outset, according to U.S. officials.
Thrown off balance by U.S. policy failures in the collapse of the shah of Iran and the estrangement of Saudi Arabia, the bureau's leadership has seen its authority undermined now by the sudden ouster last month of two top aides of Assistant Secretary of State Harold Saunders. The dismissals were ordered by Deputy Secretary of State Warren Christopher with only perfunctory notice to Saunders.
Strauss included Saunders on this mission's carefully chosen delegation, which also includes Edward Sanders, the White House's liaison with the U.S. Jewish community. Before coming to Jerusalem, Strauss stopped in Cairo for one hour to drop off a small group of American textile executives to talk about the possibility of joint economic ventures that would help strengthen the Egyptian-U.S. relationship.
Strauss travels to Alexandria to attend the agenda talks on Tuesday.He will visit Jordon and Saudi Arabia briefly late in the week before returning home.
In discussing his plans with reporters today, Strauss said he would not talk to Palestinians who are members of the Palestine Liberation Organization on this trip.
"We are not talking to the PLO," he said. "I did not set that policy and I don't have the authority to change it."
The fact that I'm going to be traveling on the West Bank in the Israelis' hands might cause a bit of a flap, I expect," Strauss continued. "By the same token so might my talking with non-PLO Palestinians in the West Bank to try to get a feel for their position."
Saying that one advantage he had in taking on the peacemaker's role was his lack of experience "and of scars" on the Middle East, Strauss said the controversy would show his intention "to take some scars, and to become an irritant if it will help."