Philip M. Klutznick is the first internationally known Jewish leader since the creation of Israel to travel to several of the leading Arab nations. The silver-haired former US secretary of commerce has come back from Israel, the West Bank, Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Saudi Arabia saying things that have angered many Jews in America and overseas.
At a time when Israel labels the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) as a terrorist organization and Soviet pawn, Mr. Klutznick describes that organization as the only one qualified to speak for the Palestinians. He does not rule out the creation of a Palestinian state as part of a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict.
While Israeli leaders denounce Saudi Arabia's peace plan as a danger to the very existence of the state of Israel, Klutznick says that even if parts of the plan are unacceptable, it is worth looking at. In the official Israeli view, Saudi Arabia is an unstable nation dedicated to the destruction of Israel. Klutznick considers Saudi Arabia to be a possible key to peace.
Some members of the American Jewish community have objected more than anything else to Klutznick's contention that the Palestinians have become a special people in the Middle East, a people resembling in some ways the Jews in the West following World War II.
But Klutznick, who is president emeritus of the World Jewish Congress and honorary president of B'nai B'rith International, the Jewish social service organization, is a hard man to attack. His comments about the Middle East may be controversial. But his credentials are impeccable. Klutznick has spent a lifetime serving the causes of Judaism and Israel. He has also served in the administrations of seven US presidents.
Klutznick considers Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin a friend, if not an ally. The two men have their differences, to say the least. But Klutznick met Begin for the first time some 30 years ago, when Begin was considered something of an outlaw and not the sort of person Jewish leaders should be talking to. Klutznick describes Begin as a ''courteous gentleman'' as well as an ideologue, whose views must be seen in the context of what he and his family suffered during World War II.
On Dec. 2, Klutznick is to join with three other persons in presenting a report on a recent trip to the Middle East. This private study group, which includes former Assistant Secretary of State Harold H. Saunders, is expected to conclude that time is running out in the Middle East. According to Klutznick, gains made through the Camp David peace process - which he endorses - could be lost if the Reagan administration fails to put more energy into peacemaking.
''For whatever reasons, the emphasis on defense and security in this administration has not been adequately matched by an emphasis on peacemaking,'' said Klutznick in the course of a lengthy interview in his office at the headquarters of Klutznick Investments in Chicago.
It was Klutznick who insisted that his four-man study group include Saudi Arabia in its travels, because he has come to the conclusion that this major oil-producing nation holds the key to many aspects of the Arab-Israeli problem. The trip has clearly influenced Klutznick's thinking, and he believes that the governments of Saudi Arabia and Syria have made a mistake in not encouraging more Jewish leaders to visit their nations in order to see for themselves. As it is, those countries have long been off limits to many Jews.
When Klutznick served as American ambassador to the United Nations' Economic and Social Council in the early 1960s, the Syrians put him on their blacklist. They objected to Klutznick's appointment to that position because he had been serving beforehand as chairman of the United Jewish Appeal.
''The Syrians snubbed me until the day I left,'' Klutznick said. ''Before I was nominated to the UN position, the Syrians sent messages saying that they would absolutely have nothing to do with me if I was appointed. Well, that resulted in my appointment.''
But Klutznick is an optimist in the sense that he believes there is now a growing Arab willingness to accept the existence of Israel. In his view, Israel must now respond to that willingness in fundamental ways that will obviously involve a degree of risk.
It is Klutznick's views on the Palestinians - and the need for Palestinian ''self-determination'' - which are perhaps the most controversial.
''I don't see how you can rule out a Palestinian state as a possibility and, at the moment, a top possibility, for bringing about a settlement,'' he said.
He thinks that the PLO is the sort of organization that will take help wherever it can get it and that the PLO's links with the Soviet Union are likely to be more transitory than permanent.
Klutznick is calm in the face of criticism of this and other positions he has taken. His serenity seems to derive not only from his strong convictions but also from his prosperity, a good marriage, and excellent health.
Thanks to a lifetime of hard work and self-discipline - he still has a habit of getting up at 5 a.m. - Klutznick went on from the loss of all his savings during the Great Depression to become a multimillionaire, a renowned community developer, and a diplomat. His views cannot be ignored.
Daniel Thursz, executive vice-president of B'nai B'rith International, sums up the reaction in the American Jewish community to Klutznick's views on the Middle East as ''generally negative.'' Mr. Thursz said that after Klutznick put some of his views into writing a few weeks ago, his organization received a number of letters saying ''disown him.'' Many letter writers, he said, felt that Klutznick had a ''somewhat romantic view'' of the PLO.
Thursz's own reaction is this: If the Arabs now look to negotiation, with recognition of Israel as an eventual goal, as Klutznick contends many of them do , then the Arabs should ''say clearly for once'' that they are ready to recognize Israel.
But Thursz, who credits Klutznick with having been largely responsible for making B'nai B'rith the international organization it is today, also says that some Jews have failed to listen carefully to all of the nuances in what Klutznick is saying.
''I happen to share a good deal of Phil's feelings,'' Thursz said.
Ashraf A. Ghorbal, the Egyptian ambassador to the United States and a friend of Klutznick's for more than twenty years, believes that many members of the American Jewish community share at least some of Klutznick's views but are afraid to say so publicly.
Mr. Ghorbal, a diplomat who is widely respected in Washington, puts it this way: ''Many of them are saying maybe not everything that Phil says but a great deal of what he says. Many criticize the unbending policy of Menachem Begin. But then they tell you, 'don't ask me to go public.' ''
''The difference between them and Phil is that Phil has the courage of his convictions,'' said Ghorbal. ''He says it straight.''